By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
There are only four passages of Scripture widely quoted on the traditionalist side that I have not yet considered: Genesis 1:26-28/2:18-25, Matthew 19:3-12 (and parallels), and Romans 1:26-27.
Despite differences in content and background, they are all (mainly) relevant to the LGBT debate in the same way: all have been read to claim the illegitimacy of same-sex relationships based on God’s original design for human sexuality in creation, often defined as male/female sexual/gender complementarity. This design renders all same-sex relations as “out of order,” that is, contrary to God’s fixed plan for creation. This is clearly the single most important biblical-theological-ethical issue faced by any Christian wrestling with the LGBT issue. It is very widely claimed on the traditionalist side. It is also received as very hurtful by gay and lesbian Christians. The issue deserves careful consideration, as far as is possible in this venue.
* * *
Finalized probably during and after the Jewish exile in Babylon (587-539 B.C.), though drawing on materials far more ancient, the function of Genesis as a whole was mainly to clarify and reinforce a distinctive and unifying Jewish origins story, theological narrative and ethical vision, drawing both on their own historic traditions and to some extent on the traditions of their neighbors. In Genesis 1-11, a primeval prehistory, the authors/editors both borrowed from and subverted their neighbors’ creation stories, while adding new elements, to paint a theological picture of creation and human origins, marriage and family life, the sources of human evil and suffering, the birth of culture, agriculture, early technology and cities, the origins of diverse peoples and languages, and the conditions existing on planet Earth prior to the call of Abraham — all framed as a story of a good creation made by God, damaged by human rebellion, subjected to God’s judgment and yet also divine redemption.
Most scholars agree that Genesis 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-25 are two different creation accounts interwoven by an editor. Genesis 1:26-28 says humans are made in the image of God, created with “sexual difference” as male and female, and commanded (blessed) to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and “subdue” it. Genesis 2:18-25 depicts God’s recognition of the loneliness of the original man and his need for a helper/companion/partner; taken from the man’s rib, this partner is woman. The final two verses function etiologically to explain the origins of marriage, as the first man and woman are called “man” and “wife.”
So there they are, two ancient, truly lovely accounts of God’s creation of humanity and of the first couple. An extraordinarily elaborate literature in biblical studies, theology and ethics has been written based on these brief ancient accounts, related to God’s purposes in creation, what it means to be made in the image of God, what human responsibility for creation looks like, how the procreation mandate/blessing is to be understood in a world now filled with seven billion people, how intrinsically relational human beings are (“not good to be alone”), the nature of humanity’s relationship with the other creatures made by God, and the kind of relationship God intended between that original man and woman.
The fact that it is a man and a woman, and only a man and a woman, referenced in the discussions of sex and marriage in Genesis 1-2 — and the fact that only a man and a woman have been able to procreate (until reproductive technology came along) — has been pivotal in shaping traditional Christian opinion on the LGBT issue. Christian tradition has taken these texts as prescriptive for all times and all peoples pertaining to the design and purpose of sex, marriage and family life. That has excluded those who are unable to fulfill that prescription due to their sexual orientation. But increasingly today it is noted that core practices noted in Genesis 1-2, including mutual care for children, helper-partner companionship (Gen. 2:18) and total self-giving, can and do occur among covenanted gay and lesbian couples.
* * *
Jesus’ teaching on divorce as recorded in Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-12//Mark 10:2-12 (and Luke 16:18, cf. Eph. 5:21-33) is simple in its way, but appears to have become more complex in the Gospel writers’ editing process. I have written about these texts at length elsewhere. Suffice it to say here the following: When Jesus is asked whether it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife” [for any cause — Matt. 19:3], he leads the conversation back to Old Testament sources. “Moses” (Deut. 24:1-4) is cited but trumped by a composite Jesus offers of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. Jesus adds his famous ruling, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 10:6b//Mk. 10:9). Jesus then goes on to condemn (illegitimate?) divorce-initiation and remarriage as adultery.
In Matthew’s version, this then triggers a conversation with the disciples where they seem taken aback by the strictness of this teaching, such that it might be “better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Jesus responds by suggesting the radical new possibility in a Jewish context of becoming “eunuchs for the kingdom,” which seems to mean embracing voluntary celibacy. This passage matters quite a bit for authorizing a celibacy option in Christianity. Some Christians, including some gay Christians, read it as mandating celibacy for all gays and lesbians. Such claims carry more existential weight when they come from celibate gay Christians — as they sometimes do — than from straight Christians enjoying the pleasures of married life.
The goal of this teaching-then-text was not to address what we now call the LGBT issue, though it is sometimes cited in that debate because Jesus references Genesis 1-2. The text itself intends a stern attack on the growing tendency toward permissiveness in first-century Jewish practice, allowing men to initiate divorce from their wives for trivial reasons, leaving families shattered and women disgraced and destitute. So the purpose of his teaching was to call listeners to a much stricter understanding of the permanence of marriage, which God intended to be a lifelong one-flesh relationship for the good of adults, children and community. That teaching definitely needs to be heard in our churches today. The text’s relevance to the LGBT issue is more debated.
* * *
Scholars historically have agreed that Paul’s purpose in Romans 1-3 is to paint a theological picture of the world leading to the conclusion that every human being desperately needs the salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ. After celebrating the gospel that saves both Jew and Greek, in Romans 1:18-32 Paul points his indictment primarily toward the characteristic sins of the pagan Gentile population — at its worst, as he sees it, and for the purposes of this particular theological indictment.
Paul indicts those who quite inexcusably “suppress the truth” about God available in creation (Rom. 1:20), dishonoring God by engaging in the futile practices of idol worship. In response, the aggrieved God’s punishment is that he “gave them up” to the dishonorable/shameful lusts, impurity and degrading passions that they now desire (Rom. 1:24-26). Their consequent spiral downward into moral debasement is then illustrated by yet another vice list, indeed 22 types of vice (1:26-32) including (vv. 29-31) “every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice … envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
But, fatefully, the one issue Paul singles out for more extended treatment in this passage is same-sex intercourse. Romans 1:26-27 is the most widely cited passage in the entire LGBT debate:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Our starting point is of course the constant citation of this verse in some Christian communities to describe contemporary gay and lesbian people as having grossly misdirected sexual passions, and to depict all same-sex acts as in the neighborhood of “unnatural,” “shameless” and punishable by God. It is a fearsome legacy, especially if one cares about the suffering of those raised in Christian homes and churches who discover a same-sex orientation.
The massive scholarly literature about this text flows in a number of directions, including what background textual or cultural influences shaped Paul’s claims here, what specific terms like “natural and unnatural” mean for him, what Paul was intending to teach in his context (exegesis), and what we are to make of it in our own time (hermeneutics and ethics).
Backgrounds: The always fair-minded William Loader suggests that Paul’s Jewish background is probably primary, including the Leviticus texts we considered earlier as well as the creation narratives. Paul may also be attempting to integrate a conservative strand of Greco-Roman intellectual and moral thinking, as in Stoicism, related to the “natural” and universal access to knowledge of the natural. And any review of what is known of Roman sexual practices and norms, including the wide acceptance of same-sex acts in various circumstances, including by married men, demonstrates their dramatic variance from traditional Jewish sexual ethics.
Loader further suggests cultural themes which might have affected Paul and would be less familiar or welcome to contemporary Christian traditionalist readers. One of these is an honor/shame concern related to men giving up their superior, active role in sex and allowing themselves to be treated like women. Another is the common association of male-male sex with humiliating, violent rape, often in war. As for women, their presumed designed/natural passivity as the recipient of male desire in sex would be shockingly overridden in volitional same-sex acts. It would be a disturbing expression of women’s agency in a patriarchal society, and thus viewed as unnatural, and certainly as a threat to male power.
Here are four approaches I have seen that raise questions about the traditional interpretation of what Paul says here:
1) By using the language of “exchanging” or giving up” “natural” for “unnatural” intercourse, Paul may be saying that he thinks those engaging in same-sex intercourse were capable of “normal,” “natural” heterosexual relations but perversely chose same-sex. Empirically speaking, this was sometimes true then, as it is now (see next paragraph). But, at the hermeneutical level, we now know that a small sexual minority is not at all capable of heterosexual attraction or relations. It does not seem that they can be fairly described as “exchanging” or “giving up” natural for unnatural sex. This raises reasonable questions about the fairness of applying this description to that part of the human community today.
2) We know that same-sex behavior in the Greco-Roman world very often, though not always (scholars differ on how to describe the balance between consensual and coercive/harmful shares of same-sex activity), looked like pederasty, prostitution and master-slave sex, and these were criticized by pagan moralists and not just Christians. These were primarily indulgences of privileged men who had the power to take and use other people’s bodies for pleasure, and the luxury to spend a fair amount of time messing around with all different kinds of sex. For these men, a wife alone was not enough. They wanted novelty, excess, pleasures of ever more exotic kinds. The first-century Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus, for example, wrote: “Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess … those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves … not women alone but also men.” Some argue that Paul is reacting to this culture of sexual excess, selfishness and sanctioned adultery in Romans 1, and that the same-sex part of the problem was incidental rather than central. This claim too is strongly disputed. Its resolution has an impact on a scholar’s sense of the relevance of this text to consensual (not to mention loving and covenantal) same-sex relationships.
3) Harvard-trained classicist Sarah Ruden, in her widely-praised book Paul Among the People, sharpens the cultural issue considerably. Quoting all kinds of sources, including bawdy popular texts as well as high poetry, she describes widespread and quite vile Greco-Roman cultural practices authorizing often violent anal rape of powerless young men, especially slaves, but really anybody of lower social status. This practice was cruelly accompanied by moral condemnation of the victims rather than the victimizers, the latter of which were often celebrated for their virility. She documents how young boys had to be very carefully protected from sexual attacks, which could happen at any time, humiliating them emotionally and perhaps destroying them physically. Ruden is convinced that this is what Paul had in mind when he thought about same-sex interest and activity, and this is why he links it to other vices of excess and debauchery in Romans 1. She claims Paul’s teachings on sexuality are in large part reflective of revulsion at this kind of cultural depravity, his desire to protect the bodies and souls of the innocent, and his commitment to discipling young Christians who would not participate in this vicious and widespread behavior. If this was his goal, no one could have a dispute with Paul. We could all agree that a culture like this is depraved.
4) Paul was writing to Roman Christians, some of whom had connections in the Roman imperial court, and all of whom would be familiar with the evil and craziness there. The violence, carousing and orgiastic sexuality of that court, including Caligula’s many depravities and Nero’s own same-sex relations, were legendary. If Paul had the imperial court in mind while painting his broad brushstrokes about the idolatrous debauchery of the Gentile world, that would mean that Romans 1:18-32 (look at that whole description again in this light) might have functioned as a highly evocative, deeply contextual, thinly veiled depiction of the Roman imperial court as a macabre worst-case symbol of Gentile depravity. This again would limit its applicability for contemporary circumstances that are far different than the Roman court.
A gently revisionist conclusion would be to suggest that Paul’s theological purpose in Romans 1, and the religious and cultural context that he swam in when he wrote it, precluded him from speaking sympathetically about any kind of same-sex relationships. The “subject” may seem to be the same, but many have argued that the context is so different that Paul’s words are of little relevance to the question of covenanted same-sex relations among devoted Christians. This would not be the only subject on which the contemporary application of Paul’s statements have been reevaluated in this way, leading to the setting aside of his implied or explicit directives (head-coverings, hair, women keeping silent in church, instructions to slaves to obey their masters).
Such a conclusion is not compelling to traditionalists, who link Paul’s teaching here to the other texts in the canon that we have explored, notably the creation/design theme, thus decontextualizing Paul’s teaching considerably and viewing it as part of a coherent overall biblical sexual ethic.
Still, stepping back, it is appropriate to wonder whether what Paul is so harshly condemning in Romans 1 has much if anything to do with that devout, loving lesbian couple who have been together 20 years and sit on the third row at church. Their lives do not at all look like the overall picture of depravity offered in Romans 1:18-32. You certainly wonder about this when you know that couple — or when you are that couple.
Next we will look much more closely at the theme of God’s design in creation and how it relates to sexual orientation.