N. T. Wright necessarily made himself an expert on the topic because, as an Anglican bishop, he served on the Lambert Commission that considered division resulting from the ordination of Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as bishop of Boston.
Moreover, Wright is generally considered the greatest scholar on Paul living today. Therefore, we should take his thoughts very seriously. After all, he’s part of a denomination in which many leaders would prefer that he approve homosexuality activity. But Wright feels compelled by the Scriptures to find that Paul does not approve homosexuality at all. Indeed, Wright concludes that Paul sees homosexuality as symptomatic of a society that has turned away from the true God and toward idolatry.
We become like whomever we worship. If we worship the true God, we are inevitably transformed to become more and more like him. If we worship ourselves or sex or money, we become less like God, less in his image, and more and more debased — less human and less true to the way God made us.
And there comes a point when we are so wicked that God gives us up so that our sinfulness should be obvious even to the lost world. Even the nations that surrounded Israel could see their wickedness when God let them die in the desert or when God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take them into captivity.
Just so, much of the world has no problem seeing the West as decadent and godless when we attempt to normalize and even approve homosexuality. After all, if we really believe that God created us, we can surely see that we are designed for heterosexual sex.
Wright specifically rejects the notion that Paul only has in mind individuals who give up heterosexual sexuality for homosexuality contrary to their innate natures. First, he doesn’t say that. Moreover, he is not speaking of person A making exchange X. Rather, he is speaking of men and women in general within a given society.
(Rom 1:27 ESV) 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Notice that Paul says that those who engaged in homosexuality “were consumed with passion.” They clearly weren’t struggling with their sexual identities! Rather, these are people who were fully absorbed by homosexuality.
After all, Paul’s argument proceeds from Genesis 1, 2 and 3. He begins with God as Creator and the Fall of Man, and then proceeds to show how humanity has more and more rejected God, resulting in sinfulness that should plainly show humanity’s fallen nature and need for a Savior.
I’ve found another discussion by Wright of the same issue in a paper he published. He offers some insights not found in the commentary quoted in the last post (paragraphing modified to ease internet reading) —
It is often said that Paul is describing something quite different from the phenomenon we know today, e.g. in large western cities.
This is misleading. First, Paul is not primarily talking about individuals at this point, but about the entire human race. He is expounding Genesis 1-3, and looking at the human race as a whole, so here he is categorizing the large sweep of human history as a whole – not, of course, that any individuals escape this judgement, as 3.19f makes clear.
Second, the point of his highlighting of female and male turning away from natural usage to unnatural grows directly out of the text which is his subtext, here and often elsewhere: for in Genesis 1 it is of course male plus female that is created to bear God’s image. The male-plus-female factor is not of course specific to humanity; the principle of ‘male plus female’ runs through a great deal of creation. But humans were created to bear God’s image, and given a task, to be fruitful and multiply, to tend the garden and name the animals.
The point of Romans 1 as a whole is that when humans refuse to worship or honour God, the God in whose image they are made, their humanness goes into self-destruct mode; and Paul clearly sees homosexual behaviour as ultimately a form of human deconstruction. He is not saying that everyone who discovers homosexual instincts has chosen to commit idolatry and has chosen homosexual behaviour as a part of that; rather, he is saying that in a world where men and women have refused to honour God this is the kind of thing you will find.
The fascinating thing is what Paul then does with this analysis of the plight of humankind. In Romans 4.18-22, when describing the way in which Abraham believed God and so was reckoned as righteous, Paul carefully reverses what has happened in Romans 1.18-23. Abraham believed that God had power to give life to the dead; he honoured God and did not waver in unbelief. That is why he is reckoned within the covenant, as ‘righteous’. And the result, of course, is that Abraham and Sarah become fruitful.
Romans 1 is not a detached denunciation of wickedness in general. It is carefully integrated into the flow of thought of the letter. (See too 7.4-6 for the contrast between sinful lives which do not bear fruit, and life under the new covenant which does.) In particular, we may note the strong ethical imperatives of chapters 6, 8 and 12, in each of which, but particularly in 6.1-11 and 12.1-2, there are echoes both of Romans 1 and Genesis 1-3 which underlies it.
Paul clearly believes that the application of the gospel to human lives produces new behaviour, renewed-human behaviour, newly image-bearing behaviour. It is not using Romans 1 as a prooftext, but as part of the tightly woven fabric of Paul’s greatest letter, to say that he certainly regards same-sex genital behaviour as dehumanized and dehumanizing.
A footnote on sexual behaviour in Paul’s world. If one looks at the ancient world there is of course evidence of same-sex behaviour in many contexts and settings. But it is noticeable that the best-known evidence comes from the high imperial days of Athens on the one hand and the high imperial days of Rome on the other (think of Nero, and indeed Paul may have been thinking of Nero).
I have argued elsewhere, against the view that Paul was quiescent politically, that he held a strong implicit and sometimes explicit critique of pagan empire in general and of Rome in particular; and clearly denunciation of pagan sexual behaviour was part of that (e.g. Philippians 3.19-21). I just wonder if there is any mileage in cultural analysis of homosexual behaviour as a feature of cultures which themselves multiply and degenerate in the way that great empires are multiply degenerate, with money flowing in, arrogance and power flowing out, systemic violence on the borders and systematic luxury at the centre.
Part of that imperial arrogance in our own day, I believe, is the insistence that we, the empire, the West, America, or wherever, are in a position to tell the societies that we are already exploiting in a thousand different ways that they should alter their deep-rooted moralities to accommodate our newly invented ones. There is something worryingly imperial about the practice itself and about the insistence on everybody else endorsing it. It is often said that the poor want justice while the rich want peace. We now have a situation where two-thirds of the world wants debt relief and one-third wants sex. That is, I think, a tell-tale sign that something is wrong at a deep structural level.
I’d not seen the comparison of the modern Western world to the Roman Empire under Nero before, but the comparison bears some reflection.
It appears that societies become fixated on approving homosexuality when they are very wealthy — so wealthy that they struggle to bear enough children to replace themselves. It’s a peculiarity of societal wealth here in the US, Japan, and Europe that we all struggle to bear enough children to keep our numbers up, because we’ve become so self-indulgent.
And it’s very hard to argue that modern America isn’t an incredibly self-indulgent people. Hence, virtues such as chastity and accountability to others become laughable. Indeed, we argue that chastity is impossible (in the face of centuries of evidence to the contrary) and that accountability contradicts our freedom and rights (as though the Constitution was written to allow us to do anything we please, regardless of the cost suffered by society).
Notice how we keep turning back to questions of the health of society, and away from individuality. You see, our insistence on reading the Bible as though each sin is only about how my sin affects me and those close to me is highly individualistic and not at all consistent with scriptural thought.
The apostles lives in a culture that was all about family, tribe, and nation, and the impact of one’s decisions was judged on a much broader basis. For example, marriage was not about what the couple wanted but what was best for the family and the community. The choice to have children was not just a question of personal benefit — whether it would be enjoyable to have children. It was about duty to parents and grandparents and to tribe. It was about perpetuating the lineage and name.
As a result, when we discuss homosexual activity and “rights” in highly individualistic, unaccountable, autonomous Western terms, we are speaking with the wrong assumptions and wrong culture to even begin to approach the text.
That is, we shouldn’t ask why God dares to tell me how to live. Rather, we ask how the wisdom of God tells me how to live, at whatever price I may have to pay, for the good of my own tribe — known as the Kingdom of God.
[We’ll return to this text a few posts from now.]