This is the second part of a posting on what the Apostle Paul might have to say to Community of Christ as it gathers for World Conference. Part 1 concerned baptism.
Theologian Walter Wink put it this way in his much-lauded essay, “Homosexuality and the Bible.”
“He [Paul] seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, ‘leaving,’ ‘giving up,’ or ‘exchanging’ their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, ‘leaving,’ ‘giving up,’ or ‘exchanging’ their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them. In other words, Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were ‘straight,’ and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world.”
Wink goes on to say that the relationships Paul describes are “heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple. That was something Paul simply could not envision.” The crux of the matter, Wink explains, is simply this:
“…the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.”
The ancient worldview of all Bible writers and editors precluded any distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, which many of us in the 21st century take for granted. Unfortunately, that worldview is still around and undergirds much of the often-heated opposition to full rights for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community.
The perceived threat to church unity and even its survival (whether denominational or congregational) related to this issue in some cases is as great today as the issue of slavery was in the nineteenth-century church. Interestingly, slavery proponents had far more biblical passages supporting their viewpoint than opponents of LGBT rights do today.
It’s almost impossible today to understand the difficult and immense journey taken by our nineteenth-century counterparts. For us, slavery is simply wrong and contrary to the values of a just society and a loving God. The issue was not so clear-cut 200 years ago. Ultimately, what mattered in the church’s debate over slavery was not so much scriptural exegesis by itself but the role of experience, especially personal testimony, in the realization that slaves were people not property.
At one extreme in the modern debate over sexuality are those who read their English-language Bibles literally and, along with centuries of Christian tradition, use them to condemn all same-sex acts and relationships. Of course, the Bible wasn’t originally written in English, and translating ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to modern vernacular is a challenging and imprecise task.
At another extreme of the conversation are those who simply reject the Bible as a reliable sourcebook and church tradition as having any value whatsoever. They rely only on personal experience, which sadly can easily become an excuse for doing whatever they feel like doing.
Eight Bible passages are most frequently used in this debate. They have come to be known as the clobber passages:
● Genesis 19:1–29
● Judges 19:1–30
● Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
● Romans 1:24–32;
● 1 Corinthians 6:9–10
● 1 Timothy 1:8–11
● Jude 1–25
My focus here is on Paul, so I’ll just note that a great many scholars agree that the “sin of Sodom” (referenced in the Hebrew Bible passages) had nothing to do with homosexuality but with inhospitality. That may sound odd if not absurd today, but ancient cultures valued hospitality to a degree we probably can’t comprehend. (I recommend Walter Wink’s essay for its extended look at the Clobber Passages.)
Let’s look at two New Testament passages (one from the undisputed letters of Paul and the other from the Pastorals, which was more likely written after Paul by his disciples):
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me” (1 Timothy 1:8–11).
There are two main issues here: (1) challenges associated with translation from ancient Greek; and (2) the common sexual practices of Hellenistic society at the time.
Even a quick comparison of these passages in various translations shows confusion over how to translate two Greek words: arsenokoitai and malakoi.
Arsenokoitai is rendered in various translations and versions as “homosexuals,” “sodomites,” “child molesters,” or “perverts.” Malakoi is rendered in those same Bible translations and versions as “catamites,” “the effeminate,” or “boy prostitutes.” Within the context of these two passages, however, these two Greek words are difficult to translate.
Malakoi is a common term and means “soft.” It can refer to clothing (see Matthew 11:8 as an example) or moral and ethical matters, where the meaning is “undisciplined.” Arsenokoitai is a rarely used word in the ancient Greek language. Its two parts are derived from arseno, which means “man,” and koitai, which can mean “bed,” “lying,” or “having sex with.” One possible meaning derived from joining these two words together is “male prostitutes,” which were common in Gentile (pagan) religions of the time.
These passages from 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians have specific meanings when placed in the context of Greek culture of Paul’s time. Keep in mind that the definition of sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world was based on (1) unequal social status of the individuals involved and (2) that one had to be dominant and the other submissive [put more crudely, there had to be a penetrator and one being penetrated].
For sexual relations to be considered proper they must satisfy both categories. This was true whether you were talking about male/female relationships or a male/male relationship. Interestingly, because females had no social standing to speak of in the ancient world, hardly anybody (including Bible writers) cared much about female/female relationships.
Chapter 1 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans includes what is probably the single, most-cited passage in his letters condemning same-sex activity (Romans 1:25–27). Although Paul was clearly not approving of that, it’s important first to put that statement in its proper context. Being the good, devout Jew that he was, Paul was most upset with the Gentile’s tendency to commit idolatry.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth….. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:18, 22-25)
It is obvious that the great sin Paul is speaking of here is idolatry. And how, Paul appears to ask almost incidentally, is that being expressed? Certainly one example is their degrading sexual passions:
“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. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (vs. 26-28)
Paul doesn’t stop here, however, because his main argument is about idolatry, not just the single (albeit terrible) example of degrading passions:
“They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (vs. 29-32)
This passage in Romans deals with promiscuity among pagan Gentiles and has nothing to do with faithful relationships among Christian believers. Of course, some of those who use this scripture text today to condemn homosexuals claim homosexuality is really only about sexual promiscuity. But that claim stands up poorly in light of the lives of actual people in the LGBT community. Curiously, some of those who contend that gay marriage is an enormous threat to the sanctity of (heterosexual) marriage have little to say about heterosexuals who practice serial promiscuity, adultery, and spousal abuse.
As Walter Wink noted,
“… the Bible has no sexual ethic…. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.”
When we approach this entire issue from the perspective of love rather than law it transforms from “What is permitted?” to “What does it mean to love my neighbor who happens to be gay [or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender]?” Furthermore, when approached from the perspective of spirit rather than the letter of the law it is no longer, “What does scripture command?” In its place is the question, “What is the Word that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of scripture, tradition, theology, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?”
Community of Christ finds itself in a variety of cultures worldwide, representing numerous worldviews and within nations holding contradictory attitudes and legal codes. There can be no “one size fits all,” but neither can its members and leaders continue to hide behind complexity, whether that be legal, moral, social, psychological, philosophical, or theological.