Some time ago, a reader asked me to comment on the theological arguments made in Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee.
Lee next takes up Romans 1 —
I had always glossed over it before, but now that this passage seemed directly relevant to my future, I discovered that I had a lot of questions about it. For example, this passage made it sound like God gave people over to homosexuality as a result of their turning from Him. Did that mean that straight people had become gay when they turned from God? Was being gay a punishment for turning from God?
Lee is, of course, making the very mistake addressed by N. T. Wright in the quotations quoted in the earlier posts in this series. He is assuming that Paul is speaking of individuals and the individual histories of sinners. But Paul is speaking of the history of humanity, beginning with Genesis 1 – 3.
He is not saying a particular person exchanged heterosexual sex for homosexual sex. He’s saying that Gentile society did this — and that the practice and acceptance of homosexual activity demonstrates that the society has departed from the created order because it’s departed from the Creator.
What was the connection between the idol worship and the dishonorable sex? I could understand saying that sin in general is a result of turning from God, which is what I had originally interpreted this passage to mean. But Paul had a long, separate list of sins at the end of the passage. If he intended to mention homosexuality as one of the sins that result from turning from God, why didn’t he list it there with all the other sins? Why did he single it out and specifically connect it with the idolatry?
Really? Paul emphasized homosexual sex because, in his eyes, homosexual sex so plainly violates God’s created order — because plainly it’s contrary to the one-flesh relationship between male and female given by God to humanity in Genesis 2. He then expands the argument to include a host of other sins.
You see, it would make no sense for Paul to be referring solely to homosexual temple prostitution. First of all, if that’s what he has in mind, he sure found an obscure way to say it — since he says nothing about prostitution. Or temples.
Paul’s emphasis is plainly on the unnaturalness of homosexual sex. He refers to “dishonorable passions,” “contrary to nature,” and “shameless acts.” These phrases don’t address idolatry but homosexual sex. I mean, if homosexual sex is okay except when engaged in to worship an idol, you’d think Paul would emphasize the wrongness of idolatry. Why say anything at all about the homosexual sex?
Just so, eating a meal is not sin, unless it’s a meal in honor of an idol. Can you imagine Paul spending four verses speaking ill of “eating” and “consuming” and “food” when what he means is “It’s wrong to worship an idol”?
Then again, Paul also calls it “shameful” and “unnatural”— using the same Greek words— for a man to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11: 14). Most Christians today understand that passage as referring to the cultural standards of that time, and it has far fewer cultural references than the Romans passage does.
Well, actually, the Greek isn’t quite as parallel as Lee would have us believe. “Shameless” in Romans 1:27 (aschemosune) does not appear in 1 Corinthians 11, where “disgraceful” translates aischros, which does not appear in Romans 1.
Moreover, “natural” in Romans 1:27 translates phusikos, which does not appear in 1 Corinthians 11. However, “nature” (phusis) in Romans 1:27 does appear in 1 Corinthians 11:14.
But the parallelism is not quite as represented.
(1Co 11:14 ESV) Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,
“Nature” in this verse does not mean “Mother Nature” but the nature of things. In 1 Corinthians 11:14, I’m inclined to agree that the reference is to cultural norms.
(Rom 1:26 ESV) For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;
Does that mean that Paul is saying in Romans 1 that women, by engaging in homosexual sex, were violating cultural norms? Well, no. In fact, Paul’s complaint is that they changed cultural norms to approve what should have obviously been disapproved.
(Rom 1:32 ESV) Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
But it’s the very same word! Sure, but words often change meaning in context, and that’s especially true in a language, such as koine Greek, that had far fewer words than modern English. With a limited vocabulary and countless new ideas to express, Paul had to let some words do double duty.
As a result, the dictionaries give multiple meanings for the same word. This is just the nature of language. And in Romans 1:26, “nature” means “human nature” or “the way God made us” or “the nature of our physical being.” Paul is plainly not referring to cultural norms, unlike 1 Corinthians 11.
(Gal 2:15 ESV) We ourselves are Jews by birth [phusis] and not Gentile sinners;
(Rom 2:27 ESV) Then he who is physically [phusis] uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
Lee doesn’t press the point, however, concluding that he couldn’t really find the answer for how to live in Romans 1.
Lee seems to have done his homework more carefully here. Arsenokoitai is used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 and is generally translated “men who practice homosexuality.” However, Lee says, the word is not found in any secular literature from the same time as Paul.
It may well have been coined by Paul based on Leviticus 18:22,
(Lev 18:22 ESV) You shall not lie [in a bed][koiten] with a male [arsenos] as with a woman; it is an abomination.
The Septuagint adds koiten (bed; promiscuity) to the text, and arsenokoitai thus is a contraction of “man” with “bed/promiscuity” (the Greeks used “bed” as an idiom for promiscuity just as we use “sleep with” to mean “have sex with”), with the association with Leviticus making it obviously about homosexual sex.
At this point in the book, Lee concludes that the evidence is too ambiguous to reach a conclusion. I have to give him credit for recognizing that his arguments aren’t convincing.
I was torn. On one hand, yes, there was a potential explanation for each of these passages that meant it wouldn’t apply to a modern-day committed gay relationship. On the other hand, every explicit mention of homosexuality in the Bible was negative. Taken together, the most obvious sense of the passages was to condemn gay sex in all contexts. Even if there were other explanations, at some point it just started to feel like looking for loopholes rather than accepting the plain sense of Scripture. I wasn’t interested in looking for loopholes.