A Better Conversation about Homosexuality – #5

Jason Micheli —  August 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

Some responded to previous posts, asking for attention upon specific scripture texts.

Here goes. Most of the oft-quoted Old Testament passages are not really relevant for the conversation. They’re either used out of context and not really about homosexuality (the Sodom and Gomorrah story) or they’re couched in Levitical codes otherwise dismissed by Christians as superceded by Jesus.

 

The text with which every one in this conversation, on both sides of the issue, must wrestle is Romans 1.18-32. Look it up.

It is the only passage in scripture that treats the subject in more than an illustrative fashion, and it is the only passage in scripture that reflects on it in theological terms.

No matter what you conclude about this passage and its understanding of homosexuality, the theological context is crucial. Here in the first chapter of Romans, Paul is attempting to demonstrate how the Gospel, rather than a set of philosophical precepts or moral teachings, is the power of God active in the world and in fact acting to overturn the world.

Paul believes that the very righteousness of God is present in the Gospel, and for Paul God’s righteousness is a verb not a descriptor. The Gospel is God’s way of making righteousness happen in the world. For Paul, then, Jesus Christ is the embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s righteousness. This is Paul’s orienting and overarching perspective in his Letter to the Romans.

In chapter 1 he takes as his task drawing a comparison between the righteousness of God disclosed in Christ and the unrighteousness of fallen humanity (1.18). The word “wicked” in most English translations can be more clearly (but more awkwardly) translated as “unrighteousness.”

The following verses (19-32) serve for Paul as his exhibits of the evidence for the unrighteousness of the fallen world. Paul catalogs homosexuality as part of his thesis. Homosexuality’s inclusion in this series of illustrations should not obscure Paul’s larger rhetorical point. As verse 21 indicates, the cited sins all fall under the more general, and more damning, indictment that these fallen sinners have failed to honor God and render him his due thanksgiving. The sin Paul is zeroing in on, in other words, is idolatry.

In what way does Paul understand homosexuality as idolatry?

A majority of biblical scholars and cultural historians concur that Paul has in mind not monogamous homosexual relationships as we might know today but heterosexuals in the wider Greco-Roman culture who engaged in homosexual acts purely for the sake of sex. This means that Paul is critiquing those who have made sex and end in itself, unattached to any sacred or intimate relationship of trust. In Paul’s mind, sex has become (or is one example of) an idol.

It is also necessary that readers not miss Paul’s larger argument and the implications it bears for how we think of homosexuality. Paul, in chapter 1 of Romans, is not warning his readers of God’s wrath to come if they should engage in such sinful, idolatrous acts.

On the contrary, and this is fundamental, Paul begins Romans with the premise that the world is already suffering God’s wrath (the Fall). If this is so, then Paul understands homosexuality not as a sin deserving of God’s wrath. This is important! He instead sees the presence of homosexual acts as proof of God’s wrath.

Paul is diagnosing the human condition as he sees it theologically; he is not prescribing wrath or punishment.

While this may be cold comfort to gay Christians, it should preclude Christians from singling out homosexuals as peculiarly deserving of God’s wrath. Indeed if one is faithful and literal to the text of Paul’s argument, homosexuality is no more grave a sin than those who are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

Paul, quite intentionally I think, provides an exhaustive and all-inclusive list. After all, his point is that all of creation is groaning in rebellion to God and we are all victims of and participants in unrighteousness.    

On the other hand, Paul’s theological point in Romans also gives grist to the argument that many Christians make that homosexuality violates God’s creative intent for humanity. While gay Christians may feel that they were created so, readers of Paul can make the theological claim that homosexuality is a sign of how Sin in our fallen world has distorted God’s aims in creation. Nothing in creation, some might posit, presently resembles what God intended in the beginning.

Paul’s writing in Romans is dense and difficult. Readers should not forget that Paul’s argument is a theological one not a moral one. To be faithful to the text, the arguments and conclusions one makes about homosexuality, at least in terms of Romans, should be theological ones.

Another word of caution to those who debate these matters, and the word of caution comes from Paul. As Paul’s reasoning continues into chapter two of Romans, Paul warns that “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (2.1).

 

Jason Micheli

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