Here’s the final session to our church-wide study on Scripture and Sexuality where we took a look at Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Note, the lecture below and the audio from the class are complimentary but by no means the same. And, you’ve totally got to listen to it because…how often do you hear the Doxology sung to the Mary Poppins’ tune?
Where We Are
Last week, we started to delve into the good stuff, also known as the “clobber passages.” We discussed how the naming of them as such also names the powers that hold us captive insofar as we engage the passages to harm our neighbor. The Sin, the Devil, the Enemy, he cannot be dealt with until we acknowledge that he is indeed at play and at work. Part of the aim of last week’s session was to try and turn us towards a new understanding of those passages, such that we can attune ourselves to the ways we misconstrue them at the cost of the Church.
A Note on Purpose and Method
It may not be entirely obvious why I have structured this class the way I have. I want to clarify this, and in doing so clarify also what my purpose in this class is.
I wanted to start by rethinking how we read the Bible. So much of what we discussed in the earlier sessions was meant to frame why the Bible, the Church’s unifying document that teaches the narrative of God’s grace in and for the world, can become such a source of antagonism, dis-grace, division, and rupture for the Church. I want to urge us towards a deeper understanding, both of Sin, and of Faith, as given in Christ. By rethinking how we read the Bible, and thus impressing on you the need to re-read it, I want to show what the Bible makes evidently clear: sinners are the only people reading it. That statement, as obvious as it may be, seems to disappear when we approach the Bible, with all its intricacies and difficulties. Despite what we may think, the Enemy is always at work in the world, even (and perhaps, especially) when we try to read the Bible.
For that reason, the lesson on discernment and Bible-reading as a churchwide endeavor seemed the obvious next step. As individuals approaching the text, it is much harder to identify and see where Sin is working in and through us. The Church serves this function of accountability. As a community, we can hold each other accountable to the grace given through the cross of Christ. The Church is the place where we can learn, teach, and discern the work of God in His grace. Thus, reading the Bible as a community formed in the image of Christ is the best defense against the Enemy, because the Church is the people through which the grace of God is shown to be at work in the world, by bringing sinners and strangers into communion with each other.
Only with such an understanding of the depth and difficulty of the task of reading could we begin to approach the Bible anew and afresh, with the openness to hear the Spirit speak. In reopening the Bible, I am not seeking to convert or evangelize. Despite what the WCA says about me, I am not part of the gay mafia, and I am not trying to push a liberal agenda.
Positively speaking, I am trying to get us to realize that, as a Church called and formed by grace, I am seeking simply to show that it is possible to live in community with others who think differently than us. The work of discernment is how we open ourselves to God, such that, through our baptism, we allow ourselves to be in communion with each other.
Romans 1: 18-32
Last week, there was one text we left out of the discussion of the “clobber passages”: Romans 1:18-32. The reason I did not include Romans in our discussion is that it does not particularly fit into the category of “clobber passages” in the same way as the others do. As we saw, the “clobber passages” are notable for the ease with which they occupy our ideological language. The “clobber passages” are those with which we can effortlessly and comfortably, fundamentally attempt to excise God’s active work in the Church, while also being persuaded that what we are doing is God’s work.
This is a diagnosable problem on all sides, from the most conservative to the most leftist. To throw Sodom and Gomorrah at someone, without regard for who they are made to be in light of the cross (physical, embodied symbols of God’s grace), functions in the same way as blinding someone with the colors of the rainbow, disregarding that the Church holds true that it is the cross that makes us equal (in our sin), not the terms of secular ideology. It is not by chance that Paul’s focus in Romans 1 is also on the work of the cross, cutting against our attempts at self-righteousness.
Romans 1.18-32 is the key scriptural text that Christians on both sides of this debate must wrestle with when it comes to homosexuality. 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. That is, we have to understand what Paul is doing, not just in these verses, but in the first chapter of Romans, and the epistle, as a whole. In the first chapter, 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 (the incarnate God is not an apolitical agent – though his politics are not like our own).
The Gospel, for Paul, is where the very righteousness of God is present. And if it is present, it is active. That is, Paul understands God’s righteousness not as a noun or adjective, but as a verb. The Gospel – the story it tells about the work of God in Christ on the cross through the Spirit – is God’s way of making righteousness present and at work in the world.
Thus, Paul sees that Jesus is the active embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s righteousness, and in chapter 1 of Romans, he is taking it as his task to detail the vast difference, the abyss between the righteousness of God disclosed in Christ, and the particular unrighteousness of fallen humanity. Paul’s work in Romans is to diagnose the theological problem that makes the world the world.
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. That is, his focus is not, say, marriage. His focus is, instead, sex taken from its place as a unitive and reflective theological motion. This means that Paul is critiquing those who have made sex an 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 do 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. Paul’s point is, rather, that the world has already come under (and been delivered from) God’s wrath. The presence of the idolatry of sex is not cast as a sin deserving of God’s wrath, but rather as proof of God’s wrath. This may sound harsh, and it would be so, if not for the cross.
God’s wrath, displayed in the death of Christ (of Godself) on the cross, exposes sin for what it is. For Paul, then, the inclusion of the language of homosexuality is not meant to single out homosexuals as particularly deserving of God’s wrath (which is, by the way, exhausted on the body of Christ). Rather, in diagnosing the theological condition of humanity, Paul sees the idolatry of sex, of which unfaithful homosexual acts are an illustrative example, as proof of God’s wrath. Again, the indictment here, as I see it, is not against homosexuality proper, but against the idolatry of sex.
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, and to be fair, 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. I do not want to skirt by this; after all, my aim here is not to convert anyone to any particular view. 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.
Readers must remember, as well, Paul’s claim in 2 Corinthians 5.17, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” That is, the old narrative of creation is left behind. The creation and intention of God for creation is not only made new, but is made right through the rectifying power of God’s righteousness, incarnate in Christ.
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, and they should be theological ones couched in the exhaustive list of sins Paul enumerates in verses 29-31.
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).
The Grafting of Gentiles
In his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays acknowledges that the New Testament provides no definitive, applicable “rule” on homosexuality. The New Testament, as in the case of Romans 1, offers only theological principles against homosexuality, yet Hays stresses that scripture’s negative prohibitions regarding homosexuality be read against the larger backdrop of the male-female union, which scripture presents as the normative location for love and intimacy.
However marginal or unclear are the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, the scriptural canon clearly and repeatedly affirms that God made man and woman for one another. Any contemporary discernment over homosexuality must struggle with this positive norm that is the overwhelming witness of the scriptural narrative
There is, however, another way of thinking about homosexuality that can serve to help balance our present discernment in the bounds of scriptural cannon and tradition. We should remember here the advice of David Fitch: grounding our discernment in the stories of real people, in the reality and complex materiality of sexuality. And we should also heed the advice of Luke Timothy Johnson, who notes that, “The burden of proof required to overturn scriptural precedents is heavy, but it is a burden that has been born before. The Church cannot, should not, define itself in response to political pressure or popularity polls. But it is called to discern the work of God in human lives and adapt its self-understanding in response to the work of God.”
To those who would worry that this advocates turning the Church into a replication of modernity, fear not. Johnson’s advice is not advice to rush ahead and simple acquiesce to culture at every turn. What Johnson gives us is the possibility of a hermeneutic of openness within the Church. That is, Johnson’s advice is to maintain a posture of humility to being open to listening to the stories of God’s people with intent, grace, and the full armor of tradition.
Because scripture consistently adopts a negative view of homosexuality and affirms the heterosexual norm, we should listen to Hays, who argues that any change to the Church’s traditional teaching must come only “after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful.”
This agonizing is not dissimilar from the work Paul does in all his corpus, but especially in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians to understand theologically the grafting of the Gentiles into the body of Christ. As in the famous line, Paul writes that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3.28). That is, in Christ’s death and resurrection (and the grace and salvation poured from there), the distinction between opposed groups is abolished. For Christians, that means that each person in the body of Christ becomes an occasion for grace.
Referring back to our notes on marriage, relationships are made possible by such work along Christological lines. Relationships, of which marriage is the pinnacle, are opened to the work of Christ, precisely because God has made the relationship of the Trinity accessible to us in the incarnate Body of the Son.
Eugene Rogers takes this to be the foundation on which gay and lesbian Christians in monogamous relation with one another, can be grafted into the body of Christ. He posits that the relationship into which we are grafted through our baptisms is precisely the relationship Paul highlights in the adoption of the Gentiles into God’s salvific work, noting, “The sting is this: In saving the Gentiles, God shows solidarity with something of their nature, the very feature that led the Jew Paul to distinguish himself from them.”
The nature with which God shows solidarity to the Gentiles is the same nature with which God shows solidarity with the Jews: their sin and excess. It is on the basis and mutual affirmation of our sin that God shows solidarity in adopting us into the life of the Trinity. On the grafting of the Gentiles, Rogers writes:
The baptismal formula is not merely descriptive of the eschatological community, but normative…the salvation of almost all Christians, those who are not ethnically Jews, and do not observe the Torah, depends on taking [Romans 11:21-2] seriously, not only because it reflects on the cause of their salvation in God’s gracious grafting of an unpeople into God’s people, but also because it regulates relations within God’s people.”
Rogers, in analogizing this to the grafting of gay and lesbians Christians into the Church, concludes that it is only by affirming our baptismal relationship to each other that we can seriously think through the issue itself. Our baptismal relation, which unites us in our death, allows us to discern the relations we ought to affirm and engender in our own community.
Rogers also offers a simple question for us to ponder: how can we deny the Spirit, when it moves right in front of our eyes?
What Rogers is implying with this question is that we open our eyes to the work of the Spirit in gay relationships. What he means by the work of the Spirit is the opening of grace to two sinners called into mutual life together in monogamous marriage. If marriage is a site of grace, then the Church ought to consider whether gay marriage can also be such a site. The grace of God in Christ knows no bounds. What the Church needs to consider is whether, given all that has been said, we ought to affirm grace in the relationships of gay Christians.