I wasn’t really meaning to spend much time on the homosexual controversy, but it’s hard to understand Romans 1 without delving into the topic, as Paul builds much of his case on the homosexuality that was prevalent in Greek society at the time.
Fortunately, N. T. Wright has taken the topic on. He was an Anglican bishop at the time, and of course, the Anglican/Episcopalian community has struggled with this issue in very public ways.
N. T. Wright explains,
The main thing to realize about Romans 1:26 and following is that it isn’t just a side swipe out of the blue. Paul’s argument at that point is grounded in the narrative of Genesis 1, 2 and 3. As often, he’s referring to it obliquely, but it’s there under the text. He’s drawing on it at various stages. He sees the point about being human as being to reflect God’s image, which he says in a number of places in his writings. He clearly sees that in Genesis 1 it is male plus female who are made in the image of God. He chooses the practice of homosexuality, not as a random feature of “look, they do all sorts of wicked things.” His point is that when people in a society are part of an idolatrous system — not necessarily that they individually are specifically committing acts of idolatry, but when the society as a whole worships that which is not the true God — then its image-bearingness begins to deconstruct. An obvious sign of that for Paul, granted Genesis 1, is the breakup of male-female relations and the turning off in other directions. Then it’s important to see how that is stitched into the argument that he mounts later on in the letter about how humankind is restored. When in chapter four he talks about Abraham, he talks about Abraham specifically did the things which in chapter one that human beings did not. In chapter one, they refused to know God, to honor God as God, to acknowledge God’s power and deity, and all the rest of it. This is the end of Romans 4. The result of Abraham acknowledging God and God’s power, recognizing that God had the power to do what he promised and giving God glory, which is the exact opposite word-by-word of what he said in chapter one, is that Abraham and Sarah were able to conceive children even in their old age. It’s a specific reversal, the coming back together of male plus female, and then the being fruitful, which is the command of Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is why he can talk in Romans 5 of how in Christ, who has fulfilled the promises to Abraham, what God wanted to do through Adam has been put back on the rails.
(Typographical errors have been corrected.)
I agree. Paul’s point is founded in the Garden of Eden, which presents God’s ideal for sexuality. When husbands and wives are truly in the image of God, these principles govern —
(Gen 1:28b ESV) “Be fruitful and multiply.”
(Gen 2:23 ESV) “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
(Gen 2:24-25 ESV) 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
The husband and wife are thus to be a unity, “one flesh,” not just sexually but certainly sexually. Creating new life is to be in the image of God.
But “flesh of my flesh” suggests an even deeper unity — that the husband and wife are in a sense one person, being made of the same stuff. And this reminds us of the Trinity and the incomprehensible unity of the Godhead, which is a model for marriage.
This is Paul’s background. And he finds the homosexuality violates God’s purpose that man and woman be restored to the image of God, that is, the perfection of Eden.
Wright then takes on the theory that Paul’s criticism of homosexuality is limited to pagan temple prostitution and similar abusive relationships, rather than voluntary, “monogamous” relationships in the nature of marriage. (Italics are questions by an interviewer.)
As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s day it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever — of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there. Indeed, in the modern world that isn’t an invention of the 20th century either.
So the attempt to get around Paul’s language on homosexuality by suggesting that its cultural referent was different than ours doesn’t work? Yes.
Thus, Paul didn’t write unaware of less abusive forms of homosexuality or even unaware of fully consensual, committed homosexual relationships. Even Plato wrote about homosexual couples living in “longer-term, reasonably stable relations.”
So a Christian morality faithful to scripture cannot approve of homosexual conduct? Correct. That is consonant with what I’ve said and written elsewhere.
And I agree. I think Wright nails it theologically. He also considers in the same interview the impact of differing views on homosexuality among Christians on inter-congregational fellowship. It’s a good read.
Now, while Paul argues that Greek culture demonstrates their separation from God and sinfulness — not just due to their approval of homosexuality but due to their approval of many other sins — Paul would never condone hatred toward those engaged in homosexuality. In fact, he would urge us to demonstrate God’s attitude through love and compassion. After all, Jesus ate with prostitutes. He did not condone prostitution, but he loved prostitutes and so he ate with them before they repented. (See The Prostitute, the Pharisee, and the Prophet.)
I consider the implications of God’s condemnation of homosexual conduct in a series called Letter to a Gay Man in the Churches of Christ. It’s a difficult and important topic, calling for compassion and understanding. But at this time, we need to continue with Paul’s argument in Romans.
We should pause for just a moment to reflect on the gist of Paul is saying. The argument is that the Gentiles need a Savior. He’s building up to —
(Rom 3:23 ESV) 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
But not just that all have sinned. The argument is that all have sinned and are accountable for their sins. Recall that in chapter 5, Paul points out that Adam and Eve weren’t accountable for laws of which they had no knowledge. They weren’t subject to death (a loss of eternal life) until they had knowledge of good and evil. God is fair in this sense: he only punishes for those sins that we are accountable for. This is the nature of God’s justice. Those who declare that ignorance of God’s law is no excuse haven’t read Romans (or Genesis) very closely.
Thus, Paul focuses on the accountability of the Gentiles. They may not have had the Torah, but they know it’s sinful to disobey parents. And surely they know that our bodies were designed for heterosexual sex. And while Paul focuses on homosexuality as particularly obvious, he mentions many other sins that even the Gentiles would know are sinful without the need for special revelation.
Therefore, he will argue, the Gentiles are accountable to God for sin — not all sins, because they have incomplete knowledge of God’s will — but enough to damn them. Therefore, they are justly damned by God. It’s fair to hold them accountable.
God only damns when it’s just to do so, and God only condemns sins when the sinner is accountable for the sin. That’s Paul’s point.