We are considering one of the latest, and best reviewed, books supporting Christian gay marriage, Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.
For most Christians, Romans 1 is the central verse dealing with homosexual acts. It seems to make homosexual conduct the very essence of godlessness — and removes all doubt as to whether the OT prohibitions continue in the NT. Vines is right to take Rom 1 on before he considers the rest of the NT verses.
Straight people acting gay?
Several decades ago, historian John Boswell contended that Paul condemned only same-sex behavior that was practiced by heterosexual people. According to Boswell’s reading, Paul denounced same-sex behavior because it was unnatural to the individuals engaging in it— that is to say, it went against their own heterosexual natures. But, Boswell suggested, Paul might have taken a different view of same-sex behavior practiced by those who were naturally attracted to those of the same sex. 7 There is something compelling about this view. In Romans 1, Paul described people who “exchange” or “abandon” opposite-sex for same-sex relations. So perhaps it’s reasonable to think that Paul was condemning, as Boswell argued, “homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons.” The argument makes sense to that point. But there’s a problem. As we saw in chapter 2, the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world. But this did not mean everyone was presumed to be heterosexual. In general, people were thought to be capable of both opposite-sex and same-sex attraction. Consequently, there’s no reason Paul would have viewed same-sex behavior as contrary to the innate inclinations of many. …
So I don’t think it’s consistent to say that Paul rejected same-sex behavior only when it didn’t come naturally to the people involved.
Kudos to Vines for conceding a point often insisted on by the pro-Christian gay marriage camp. The Romans scholars largely agree with Vines that Paul is not condemning only gay sex by straight people, although the scholars generally come at the question from different angles.
Rather, Vines argues,
In this light, same-sex relations were not objectionable because the partners shared the same anatomy. Dio [Chrysostom] and others saw them as wrong instead because they stemmed from hedonistic self-indulgence.
(p. 105). Well, of course, the real question is why did Paul see same-sex relations as wrong in Rom 1. It is true that many of the Greeks and Romans thought in terms of excess passion, but that doesn’t really sound like Paul, does it? Paul was not the man who wrote, “Moderation in all things.” That’s just not how he thought.
Rather, as Richard Hays, one of the premier NT scholars of this age, a Methodist, and a professor at Duke University, exegetes the text,
The genius of Paul’s analysis, of course, lies in his refusal to posit a catalog of sins as the cause of human alienation from God. Instead, he delves to the root: all other depravities follow from the radical rebellion of the creature against the Creator (1: 24– 31).
Hays, Richard (2013-07-30). The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic (p. 384). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The underlying problem isn’t a lack of moderation (a pagan concern, not a Christian concern), but rebellion against God.
The way in which the argument is framed here is crucial: ignorance is the consequence of humanity’s primal rebellion. Because human beings did not acknowledge God, “they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (1: 21; cf. 2 Thess. 2: 10b– 12). Paul does not argue on a case-by-case basis that every single individual has first known and then rejected God; instead, thinking in mythico-historical categories, he casts forth a blanket condemnation of humankind. …
According to Paul’s analysis, God’s “wrath” against his fallen human creatures takes the ironic form of allowing them the freedom to have their own way, abandoning them to their own devices.
Hays, Richard (p. 385).
Thus, the particular depravities catalogued in verses 24– 31 serve two basic purposes in Paul’s argument. (Notice that the failings listed in verses 29– 31 have nothing to do with sexual behavior.)
First, these various forms of “debased mind” and “things that should not be done” are seen to be manifestations (not provocations) of the wrath of God, punishments inflicted upon rebellious humanity rather as the plagues were visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus. Paul is not warning his readers that they will incur the wrath of God if they do the things that he lists here; rather, speaking in Israel’s prophetic tradition, he is presenting an empirical survey of rampant human lawlessness as evidence that God’s wrath and judgment are already at work in the world.
Second, the heaping up of depravities serves to demonstrate Paul’s evaluation of humanity as deeply implicated in “ungodliness and wickedness” (1: 18b).
Why then does homosexual behavior demonstrate God’s rejection and wrath?
Rebellion against this Creator who may be “understood and seen in the things that he has made” is made palpable in the flouting of sexual distinctions that are fundamental to God’s creative design. The reference to God as Creator would certainly evoke for Paul, as well as for his readers, immediate recollections of the creation story in Genesis 1– 3, which proclaims that “God created humankind in his own image… male and female he created them,” charging them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1: 27– 28).
Similarly, as we have noted in our discussion of divorce, Genesis 2: 18– 24 describes woman and man as created for one another and concludes with a summary moral: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Thus the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity.
By way of sharp contrast, in Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a “sacrament” (so to speak) of the antireligion of human beings who refuse to honor God as Creator. When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design. Thus, Paul’s choice of homosexuality as an illustration of human depravity is not merely random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid image of humanity’s primal rejection of the sovereignty of God the Creator.
Vines, of course, rejects the notion that God’s creation reveals any theological importance in the difference between men and women, but Paul plainly disagrees. Paul’s argument is obviously one from design: that anyone can see from the created natures of men and women that they are designed for heterosexual relationships and that homosexual activities are contrary to God’s design — and hence contrary to God himself.
The other sins mentioned by Paul are similar. You don’t have to have a Masters in Theology to know that children should obey their parents or that gossip and slander are wrong. Paul is saying that certain behaviors are so obviously contrary to human nature — as made by God — that to indulge in such sins is to rebel against the Creator. And he mentioned homosexual activity most prominently for that reason.
Vines points out that, in the ancient world, some writers declared homosexual sex unnatural but they also considered it “natural” that women live in extreme subordination to men. Does that mean that Paul has bought into every use of “natural” or “unnatural” by pagan authors when he uses those words?
Obviously not. Paul defines “natural” in context in terms of God’s creation. He is explaining the consequences of the fact that the Creator can be known from what he has made. Hence, “natural” should not be read in terms of Plato or Plutarch but the immediate context.
Vines cites to those who see Paul as speaking in terms of Greco-Roman honor-shame culture. And while Paul sometimes does speak in terms of honor and shame, it’s always to redefine those concepts in light of a Christian worldview. He never simply adopts the pagan perspective.
Therefore, of course, it’s shameful or dishonorable to act contrary to God’s will, in Paul’s mind, but not because Greco-Roman standards of behavior are being violated. It’s dishonorable because it’s disobedient to God’s revealed nature.