As a Christian in the West and as a United Methodist elder, I have been faced time and time again with the question about homosexuality that permeates the wider social and political discourse. On the one hand, I recognize much of the pain that lesbian and gay people have experienced over the years in the forms of bullying and fear of being condemned and hated by God. I can only attribute such harm done by what I attribute to two different yet interrelated and occasionally overlapping sources.
Firstly, there is an arrogance in Western culture, and especially in American culture, that is based upon the drive to superiority that forms bullies to cowardly target those who have less status, which people with “deviant” sexualities have been considered to have. This brings me to the second source, a dominant form of evangelical theology that has had an particular, long-term influence in the United States, although to be clear here my judgment is not directed towards all evangelicals or evangelical theology. Essentially, this dominant strand focused on behavior and belief management through an exaggeration of the idea of hell and eternal that goes far beyond the actual Scriptures, to the point that the idea of hell has been read into the phrase “will not inherit the kingdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, wrongly in my mind, that has been used against people who are gay and lesbian. The unfortunately all-too-common interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah’s great sin being that of homosexuality only add’s fuel to this destructive fire. This is only exacerbated by the fact that this prevailing stream of evangelical theology has developed a view of sex that can be summarized as “any stimulation of the sexual organs or the thinking of such an act except when a man and woman is married is a sin.” Far beyond what I take to be the basic concern for sexual restraint and sanctity of the marriage bed in the Old and New Testament, they see an exaggerated, overgeneralized understanding about sex that then places a gay or lesbian person as some of the most egregious violators of these sexual norms. brings Combine the cultural predilection towards arrogant dominance with exaggerated ideas about judgment and sex and you have a deadly cocktail that would deeply harm people who are suspected of being “sexually deviant.”
And yet, on the other hand, despite my awareness of these problems, I am left with another fundamental point of truth: the Scriptures are decisively what we might label today as “hetero-normative,” in that they testify to a vision of sex and marriage being shared between a female and a male. Whatever else we might say about the sexual coupling of two people of the same sex, it would in no way be considered the same or equivalent to the vision of husband and wife joined together. This is such an important part of the Scripture narrative that when God creates humanity in His image, the only way God’s image is described is in humanity’s maleness and femaleness in the context of being fruitful and multiplying so as to subdue God’s creation. While we who believe in Jesus as the Lord of creation can know that God’s image is not essentially sexual because Jesus was never married and was celibate, nevertheless God creates humanity such that His image as humanity’s vocation is ti be realized in the partnering of men and women. Given the prevalence of the image of God and of new creation in the New Testament, particularly the Pauline epistles, we can’t just perform some sort of intellectual magic to pretend that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 is a relic of days long past without ripping New Testament Christianity out from its Jewish context. Whatever else we can say about the understanding about sex in the Bible, the Scriptures are uniformly heteronormative. This is true just not in a conventional way, but in a theological way.
However, it is at this point where I feel like the understanding of sex in Christianity’s history and the Scriptures begin to dovetail from each other in a subtle cognitive way that would have tremendous societal implications down the line. For the West, we have historically thought about good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood in terms of mutually exclusive categories in which something is either one or the other, which is known in logic as the law of the excluded middle. While this logical law is tremendously helpful in trying to ascertain matters of fact about essentially discrete possibilities, it’s usefulness for understanding other matters, including ethics, is not as clear. However, this law of logical reasoning began to become part of Greek philosophical thinking, with the end result of that we reason out various matters in terms of the mutually exclusive binary. And, as this form of thinking in Greek philosophy had a greater and greater influenced on the development of Christianity as it became a more predominately ‘Gentile’ religion, it would contribute the ethical reasoning that deviance from the male-female prototype describing in the creation narrative would be considered categorically wrong and sinful, including homosexuality.
Now, if you are at all familiar with progressive ‘critiques’ of the Christian understanding of sexuality, this criticism of binary thinking would not be unfamiliar to you. Propagators of progressive sexuality often use “binary” with a hint of contempt, often with an implied sense that such an idea is so intellectually unenlightened and regressive so as to automatically invalidate almost everything Christianity has historically said about sex to be entirely suspect. For them, this error of “binary” thinking is a justification for a broad-based criticism of Christian ethics about sex. I am not, however, embracing a broad-based criticism but rather a much narrower criticism: this blending of the broad contours of the Biblical teachings about sex and this mode of binary reasoning has lead to a particular hermeneutic about what specific texts about ‘homosexuality,’ particularly in the New Testament, are talking about. Passages such as Romans 1.26-27, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, and 1 Timothy 1.10 are referring to people who engage in wrong type of sexual activity, a deviance from the model of sexual life between a husband and wife solely in virtue of the two sexual partners being the same gender.
On the surface of it, this type of reading is credible. The Greek word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.10 is ἀρσενοκοίτης, which is an incredibly rare term that is best explained as being derived from the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18.22. That Paul, a Jew, uses such a term that is otherwise incredibly rare but strongly resembles the preferred Greek translation of the Old Testament is very powerful evidence, albeit not entirely indefeasible, that Paul is in some way thinking about Levitical sexual prohibitions in those two passages. And since Leviticus 18.22 seems on the surface to be pretty cut and dry in our minds, the traditional reading suggests Paul is giving what may be said to be a blanket condemnation of all sexual activity between two people of the same sex.
If, however, Paul’s own reasoning and understanding of Torah is not constrained to a binary view of mutually exclusive categories that regards all deviance from a set ideal and standard to be in error, sin, etc. but rather is a form of prototype reasoning in which some degrees of deviance may be ‘acceptable’ but that there are certain thresholds of deviance that deviate far too much, which is the more natural way we as humans reason unless we learn to embrace a more deliberate, analytic approach that makes sharp, mutually exclusive distinctions, then Paul’s rhetoric against ‘homosexual’ behavior may be understood to be based upon something more than just the deviance of gender. Rather, I want to suggest a much more plausible way an ancient Jew would have understood sex is that they held the ideal prototype of a man and woman in deep intimacy together, but the type of sexual deviance they feared was not a mixing of the gender but the utter disregard of that bond of intimacy and family.
If we look at the later Jewish Talmudic commentary on the Mishnah, we see very little concern about “homosexuality.” The one text in the Talmud that interprets Leviticus 20.13 (Sanhedrin 54a) is part of an attempt to offer an interpretation of the Levitical sexual prohibitions in which they describe in legal terms the type of activity that would make men guilty of breaking this regulation. But aside from that, there does not seem to be much anxiety in ancient Judaism about homosexual intercourse. When the sins of Sodom are expanded upon in Sanhedrin 109a-b, the list of offenses attributed to them includes various forms of evil and injustice but there is no concern to try to suggest Sodom came under judgment due to male sexual intercourse with men.
It is here that I want to focus on Romans 1.26-27. Paul’s usage of the less frequently used ἄρσην and θῆλυς to refer to a male and female, rather than ἀνήρ and γυνή suggests that he is using the language for a specific reason, which I think most likely to be echoing the language of the creation of humanity in LXX Genesis 1.27 to the Jewish Christians in Rome. However, at this point, we as Western Christian influenced by the heritage of Greek reasoning permeating out understanding of Christian theology and ethics has us focus on the language about nature φυσικός and think that homosexuality is against the nature of God’s creation, where nature is male-and-female and unnatural is the confusion of this gender coupling. While certainly, Paul is talking about some sort of sexual activity that goes God’s creation, it seems the language of nature is used not to provide a strict outline of how creation must work but part of Paul’s attempt to echo the creation narrative.
However, it is important to note at this point that we never see Paul explicitly state that homosexual activity is “unnatural.” It is only said that women exchange the natural for what is not natural, whereas Paul is more specific when talking about men engaging in sex with each other. We are naturally inclined to fill in the blanks and that Paul is describing the homosexual activity for both men and women, but this may be a misleading hermeneutic habit. Why is Paul not more specific when it comes to what the women did when he is willing to do the same for the men? Also, PAul uses different verbs to describe the women exchanging (μεταλλάσσω) the natural for the unnatural and the men abandoning (ἀφίημι)women as sexual partners. Furthermore, Paul’s statement about the penalty of sin is only directed at the men, and not the women. We may be inclined to assume that the women and men described engaged in equivalent behaviors, but that is an assumption that isn’t explicitly clear in the text. In fact, the evidence is there to suggest that the “sins” of the women and men are different because of the different descriptions of the offending behaviors and only the men described as receiving a penalty.
Whatever the women Paul is talking about did, it is only said to be against nature. Only if as assume that Paul is using the language of nature to describe the fixed gender order in creation rather would we take it to refer to lesbianism. However, Paul’s language may be considered a suggestive euphemism to some other type of sexual behavior that didn’t involve humans at all. Out of propriety, I will leave for you the reader to research ancient portrayals of sex for Roman women if you need to know more, but I will that I am not implying zoophilia as there is no historical evidence for that being it. Whatever it is the women did, Paul connects it (ὁμοίως) to what the men did as they “gave up the natural relation with women” and burned with a sexual passion for other males.
What I think is critical here is that Paul’s language is not more evocative of the transgression of specific norms about gender, but rather the violation of the sanctity of the marriage bond. The verb ἀφίημι could be used in the context of the breaking of a marital relationship, such as by divorce or death. While not a technical term for divorce or a dissolvement of a marital covenant, it certainly can be used to connote a sense of martial isolation or abandonment. Here in Romans, I would suggest it is likely a reference to the sexual abandonment of one’s wife in favor of other males. This was an occasional reality in the ancient Greco-Roman society, where husbands would prefer the pederastic relationship with a young boy over sexual intercourse with their wives. In such a case of abandonment, the women would likewise resort to other forms to satisfy their libido that are against nature and, as a consequence, the men are understood to be punished for their error.
If my interpretation of Romans 1.26-27 is correct, then what is of primary concern in Paul’s description is the abandonment by men of their marital ‘duties.’ This suggests that what is most wrong about their error is the violation of the sexual coupling that exists between husband and wife. Paul does not have in mind our modern conceptions of “homosexuality” as someone who is gay or lesbian and only seeks sexual relations with people of the same gender. Whatever else we might say about that from a Biblical understanding of sex and marriage, this most likely not the practice that Paul is referring to, nor is Paul’s language about “nature” intended to be descriptive of a universal, fixed sexual order in creation, but rather the relational and sexual bond between husband and wife. In other words, what Paul describes of the men is much closer to what we would categorize as adultery today.
It is this type of substitution within the bonds of marriage that I think Paul is also referring to by the word ἀρσενοκοίτης 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 and 1 Timothy 1.10. Rather than understanding Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 as an indirect description of a specific type of sexual act as can be seen being described in the Talmudic interpretation of Leviticus 20.13, the Levitical image of lying with a man as with a woman is understood more so in the substitution of the martial relationship with sexual intercourse with another male. ἀρσενοκοίτης would them be used to refer to Roman men who engaged in pederastic relationships with boys as a preferential substitute to sexual relations with their wives. While we can not directly verify that this is how Paul understood the Levitical passages, we can certainly surmise it as a reasonable interpretation that coheres with (1) the interpretation I provided of Romans 1.26-27 and (2) a common practice in Greco-Roman society.
The suggestion I am trying to make here is that Paul, as the only source in the New Testament that directly talks about ‘homosexuality,” does not understand the account of humanity’s creation as primarily being about the right gender for sexual coupling. Rather, he understands the creation narrative to describe the important relationship between males and females that is necessary for humanity to fulfill their vocation in being as God’s image. As such, the sanctity of the marital bond is the primary narrative significance, not some universal order for sexual activity. What is considered to be an egregious sexual violation is sexual activity that violates that basic bond between a husband and a wife. A legitimate theological employment of Paul’s understanding of sex and marriage in the context of the Jewish canon of Scripture would unapologetically be “heteronormative” because the particularity of the sexual partnering of a husband and wife that is necessary part of humanity’s corporate vocation to be in God’s image in creation can not be replaced by other types of bonds of sex and intimacy, even if not every individual must be married, sexually active, and having children to participate in humanity’s corporate vocation to be in God’s image. However, at the same time, I would argue that the Pauline passages, and even the Old Testament passages that we construe to be talking about “homosexuality,” were not written to address the idea of a gay or a lesbian person who is ‘oriented’ towards people of the same gender.
While the progressive ‘spirit’ that seeks to change the historical and traditional teaching of the Church on sexuality would lead to a massive divergence and ignoring of the significant particularity of the creation narrative that undergirds the various Biblical understandings about sex, how we as part of the Body of Christ seek to incorporate gay and lesbian people into the life of our fellowships is something that I would suggest is more discernment than the unequivocal no that is commonly given to them. What some call for in “full inclusion” that in effect seeks to get the Church as a whole to testify to the functional equivalence of same-sex coupling with opposite-sex coupling is in my mind too strong of deviance from the Biblical and creation narrative; it smells too much of cultural appropriation of a historical religion for other wider socio-political agendas. However, what it is that we would say about an exclusively same-sex attracted person who seeks a marital union may be open to some degree of accommodation at some level without sacrificing what the Scriptures testifies to the *corporate*, not individualistic, the vocation of humanity to be in God’s image.
To conclude: I would suggest that the Church throughout history and tradition got the big picture correct. However, due to the unintended influences from Greek styles of reasoning and gradual growth in the numbers and influence of Gentiles that beckoned a movement away from the emic understanding of the Jewish ethos about sex and marriage, some of the details of the tradition may not be truly present in the Scriptural witness. I say this with theological humility, however, as I am by no means an expert on the whole tradition. I only have some strong confidence in my exegetical argument, whereas I am more hopeful that there are more ways to allow gay and lesbian people to feel at home in the Body of Christ while not capitulating to visions of alternative sexuality that would fundamentally dismiss and overlook what has pivotal importance in the Scriptures.