The Clobber Passages: Reexamined, continued
BISEXUALITY AS A NORM IN ROME – The final major passage is Romans 1:26-27, where Paul writes, "even [the pagan] women did change [NIV: 'exchange'] the natural use into that which is against nature [para phusin]:  And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another [doing unseemly things and] receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet." (The "recompense" here may refer to the pagans' general downward slide, to venereal disease, or [as Philo suggested] to sterility.) Right from the start, three important observations should be noted : (1) This passage is about heterosexuals – and therefore has nothing to do with those with a homosexual orientation. These persons were fully able to enjoy heterosexual passion and pleasure, but then they turned to indulge also in same-sex activities. As John Chrysostom noted in a 4th century sermon on this passage, "Only those possessing something can change it." (2) This passage, in its larger context, is about God-rejecters – and therefore has nothing to do with GLBTs who have been Christian their whole lives but still also have always known that they are "different." (3) This passage is about lust (brothel pickups, back-alley sex, and the like) – and therefore has nothing to do with homosexual love, devotion, and commitment or to GLBT people who would like to find a companion and a long-term relationship. The focus of this passage, then, is narrowly fixed on certain negative aspects of sex, that can, in some cases, characterize both heterosexuals and homosexuals. This is the first (and only) mention of “lesbians” in the Bible (although in ancient times everyone was married or was expected to marry), probably introduced because Paul wishes to show that both genders need to experience God's grace (just as do the pagans and the Jews).
to the Romans presents his most systematic treatment of the Gospel; and in
chs. 1-3 he shows how "all [both Gentiles and Jews] have sinned, and
come short of the glory of God" and need "the redemption that is
in Christ Jesus" to be received "through faith in his blood [atonement]"
(3:23-25). In the section on the Gentiles (1:18-32), Paul describes how the
Greco-Roman world rejected the true witness in nature of the living God (of
his power and greatness) – and so the "wrath [judicial judgment]
of God" has fallen upon them (vv. 18-20), meaning he has left them to
drift ever further into darkened thinking (vv. 21-23) and destructive practice,
both polysexual (vv. 24-27) and antisocial
(vv. 28-32). As God "gave them up [over]" (vv. 24,26,28), the pagans
"exchanged" (vv. 23,25,26-27) the true Creator to worship dumb man-made
images, the truth about God for a lie (their own fanciful myths), and "natural
[sexual] use for unnatural." What Paul means by “against nature”
(1:26) is debated, because he does not recall the Creation story here (where,
in any case, sex was created for companionship [Gen 2:18,20] as much
as for conception [2:24]). Also, except for his reference to sinners who are
sinful "by nature" (Eph 2:3), Paul's references to what is "natural"
apply to group or individual (not universal) characteristics – e.g.
the Gentiles are Gentiles "by nature" (Rom 2:27), the Jews are Jews
"by nature" (Gal 2:15), idols are not gods "by nature"
(Gal 4:8), and plants may be "by [their] nature" either wild or
cultivated (Rom 11:24). Applying Paul's usual concept of "natural",
one could argue that gay people should respect (and do not need to change)
their true, fundamental sexual orientation, which is natural for them. Also,
the fact that homosexual activity has been documented among 450 different
species of animals, birds and other creatures shows that it is a "natural"
part of sexual diversity.
Clearly, Paul drew from the Wisdom of Solomon (an intertestamental Jewish text) for his view in Romans 1 that "the worship of idols … is the beginning, the cause, and the end of every evil" (14:27, REB), bringing a breakdown of civil order (murder, theft, riot, etc., vv. 25-26) and a "change of kind" (v. 26, Authorized Version). Bailey noted that this “change of kind” could refer to a changing of race (Greek influences on the Jews), of gender (cross-dressing that was a common feature of many fertility cults), or of one's genitalia (self-castration such as marked the worship of Cybele in Asia Minor). (Of course, cross-dressing condemned in the context of the castrated devotees who served pagan deities cannot be used to condemn transgender orientation.) Secular (as well as Jewish) thinkers of the time – including Seneca, Plutarch, and the Stoic philosophers – viewed homosexual behavior as (1) freely chosen by the individual; (2) forcing a man to take a woman's role which they considered against nature; (3) always linked with insatiable lust; and (4) leading to sterility and extinction of the race (Furnish). Today we question the accuracy or absolutism of all of these assumptions. Numerous scientific studies suggest that homosexual orientation is probably, in most cases, prenatal (including genetic and hormonal factors) and permanent, while environmental factors may also play a role. Today we consider the ancient patriarchal view as outdated, as modern women show themselves to be every bit as capable, educated and gifted as men – and for men to assume “feminine” traits (e.g. nurturing) or roles (e.g. child-rearing) is inconsequential. Science has recognized that gender roles and identity are innately more fluid and varied than earlier recognized. Many gay singles live balanced, successful and decent lives and many gay couples live long, happy and full lives together that vary little from their heterosexual counterparts, save for their sexual orientation. Homosexual activity does not cause sterility, and the percentage of people who turn out homosexual is always so small that it never threatens extinction.
Since sexual practices can vary so greatly from culture to culture and age to age, we need to ask, what forms of homosexual activity did Paul see predominately as he traveled around the Roman Empire? Boswell notes that if rights over property, spouses, and children were in place, the ancient Roman male felt free to do pretty much whatever he wanted to do on the side sexually. Moreover, it didn't matter too much with whom he did it, or with which gender. Furnish describes how the pederastic tradition of ancient Greece had evolved by Paul's day into two different forms: (1) the use of brothel prostitutes (starting before marriage), which fostered a large slave-trade of youth and supported the castration of boys to fill a special market demand, and (2) the sexual abuse of slaves, as affluent males bought and utilized household slaves for sexual release whenever and however they wished (sometimes even loaning them out to friends for sex). It should be noted that one-third of the inhabitants of the large cities in the Roman Empire were slaves – and it is even more interesting to note that a number of the Christian believers in Rome were slaves in such households (Rom 16:10-11). One wonders whether any of them had ever been abused or if this possibility influenced Paul’s introduction of homosexuality as a topic earlier in his letter. In any case, what Paul condemned in Romans 1 was a pagan polysexual world where people were led by social custom to indulge in same-sex acts along with heterosexuality, throwing aside any interest in fostering true love and faithfulness within a committed relationship. At the same time, this sexual world supported many kinds of exploitative, demeaning, and destructive forms of behavior.
In conclusion, the formulation of Christian ethics for any age requires both a careful, literal reading of Scripture (as with any ancient text), along with an informed, caring knowledge of the specific problems that real people face in modern culture. The commonly held assumption that the Bible presents a single, straightforward sexual ethic that can be universally applied is not true. Throughout the OT, for example, men could take multiple wives and concubines (slave partners), women were looked upon as chattel for male disposal (e.g. Lot’s daughters), and nowhere did Moses forbid Israelite men to visit secular prostitutes. In Jesus’ day, prostitution continued openly, as did the fact that a wife had no legal recourse against her husband, although he could abuse her and easily divorce her for even minor reasons. No wonder, Jesus stressed loving others (Matt 22:37-40), in the face of such unfair legalism. Paul likewise declared that for followers of Christ the “entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5:14, NIV). If Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) shows us anything, it is that the righteous standard of God is very high – which is why we all need God’s precious grace and why we also need to bring compassion to applying Christian ethics in this fallen, imperfect world. Shall we simply quote Jesus’ rule on divorce (only for adultery and then you can never remarry, Matt 5:31-32) to a teenage girl who marries only to discover that her husband is a wife-beater who refuses any counseling or treatment? No, I believe we should follow Jesus’ supreme rule of love, even if it bends the ideal rule on divorce. Shall we condemn the gay or transgendered person? No, there should be room for all of God’s children in the Church. Demanding arbitrarily (as ex-gay ministries do) that all gay people must live celibate lives – even while Paul said that this is not possible for most, who should instead try to find a partner (1 Cor 7:7-9) – or that they “change into heterosexuals” is cruel, self-deceptive, and self-destructive, a path that produces neither whole nor healthy people.
Moreover, Paul struggled in a time of great religious change, when he was unable to realize all of his goals. Some conservative interpreters claim that no matter how 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Rom 1:26-27 are interpreted, Paul would never have approved of any homosexual activity – an assertion that is far from certain. One must remember that Paul was a "radical" in many ways, standing sometimes alone against the whole body of Jewish Christians (Gal 2:11-14), so that his Gentile converts would not have to be "in bondage" to the Law of Moses, but fully redeemed and "free" in Christ (Gal 5:1-2), led by Christ's Spirit within (4:6). Paul envisioned a world where all Christians (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female) are one and equal in Christ (Gal 3:28), but he cannot achieve such a lofty goal – and so, many of his social stipulations, which condone slavery (Col 3:22, Tit 2:9), exclude women from ministry (1 Tim 3), and dictate certain hair and head-covering styles (1 Cor 11:4-15) are better read as temporary rather than universal guidelines. Also, Paul sometimes changes his mind as he tries to find God-honoring but practical solutions for perplexing problems in his churches. For example, he commands (perhaps a bit overexcitedly) that women in all of his churches "keep silence" because of disruptive problems in the church at Corinth (1 Cor 14:33-35); and yet several years later he will write to the Roman churches, commending Phoebe, who is head (so hardly silent) of the church at Cenchrea, the eastern port city of Corinth, instructing everyone to help her with whatever she needs (Rom 16:1-2). And who were Andronicus and Junias in Rom 16:7 (both male names in the Greek, see RSV2, LB, NIV, NASB), who had lived together for some 25 years, moved around the Empire together, were imprisoned together with Paul for the faith (which means that neither was an invalid), and now are even called "apostles" by Paul? Could Paul have condemned homosexual abuses on the one hand (Rom 1), while at the same time accepting without fanfare a gay couple who had faithfully served the Lord and supported his ministry? We cannot know for sure, for the reference is brief. Although Scripture is divinely inspired as Jesus and the apostles held (Matt 5:18, 2 Tim 3:15-17, 2 Pet 1:20-21), certainly there remains room for advancement on certain social issues – like slavery, women, cultural diversity, and gays – to move forward toward one day fulfilling Paul's great vision of all believers being one and equal in Christ (Gal 3:26-29).
We have seen how these "clobber passages" condemn only various kinds of sexual abuse and misuse – including rape, sex in pagan worship and also in church, prostitution in all its forms (cultic, secular, including the enslavement and castration of children) and those who support it, and the creation of a society where everyone is encouraged to live a promiscuous, polysexual life. Nowhere in the Bible is there expressed any awareness of homosexual or transgender orientation. But also, clues scattered throughout the Bible suggest that same-sex love and commitment not only existed and were openly written about – and also that God clearly has a place in His kingdom for those who are sexually different and often scorned for it. Ruth's love for the older Naomi and her desire to be her lifelong companion were expressed in words so beautiful (Ruth 1:16-17) that they are still often repeated today at weddings. Prince Jonathan's love for young David is described in the most passionate of terms – he "loved him as his own soul [GNB: 'was deeply attracted to David']" (1 Sam 18:1), he "delighted much in David" (19:2), and his love "was wonderful, [sur]passing the love of women" (2 Sam 1:26). That this was an erotic love is made clear when King Saul rebukes his son for "choosing" David to his "own shame [bosheth] and to the shame of your mother's nakedness [erwah = genitals]" (1 Sam 20:30, NASB) – an insult that had clear sexual undertones. Although Moses banned eunuchs (men were commonly castrated in the ancient Near East for temple and royal service) from Israel's assembly (Deut 23:1), God promised Isaiah that such sexual "outcasts" would one day be welcomed into God's house (Isa 56:3-8) – and remarkably the first Gentile brought into the Church, through the Holy Spirit's initiative and baptized by Phillip was the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), who truly rejoiced in God's grace. And did not Jesus say that there are truths that not all can understand or accept, while expressing his full acceptance of all kinds of "eunuchs," including those that are born that way (and so will not procreate) or who turn out that way from other circumstances beyond their control (Matt 19:11-12)?
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you! May Christ’s precious love fill your heart abundantly …
Bailey, Derrick Sherwin. Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 1980.
Coleman, Gerald D. Homosexuality: Catholic Teaching and Pastoral Practice, 1995.
Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament …, 1988.
De Young, James B. Homosexuality, 2000. (homophobic)
Furnish, Victor Paul. "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context," in Homosexuality in the Church, edited by Jeffrey Siker, 1994, pp. 18-35.
Furnish, Victor Paul. The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, 2nd ed. 1985.
Gagnon, Robert A.J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2001. (homophobic)
Martin, Dale B. "Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences," in Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality, edited by Robert L. Brawley, 1996, pp. 117-136.
McNeill, John J. The Church and the Homosexual, 1976, 1985, 1988, 1994.
Nissinen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 1998.
Scanzoni, Letha, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, 1978, 1994, 1998.
Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality, 1983.
Strong, James. Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
GNB = Good News Bible, 1983.
KJV = Holy Bible. King James Version, 1611.
LB = Living Bible, 1971.
NASB = Holy Bible. New American Standard Bible, Updated, 1999.
NIV = Holy Bible. New International Version, 1978.
NRSV = Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version, 1989.
REB = Revised English Bible, with the Apocrypha, 1989.
RSV = Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version, 1952.
RSV2 = Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version, 2nd ed., 1972
HEBREW – ish (EESH) = "man."
qadhesh (kaw-DASH) = "male cult prostitute."
kaleb (KEH-leb) = "dog, male prostitute."
zakhar (zaw-KAR) = "male [animal or man]."
GREEK – andrapodistai (an-DRAP-o-dis-TI-ee) = "kidnappers, slave-traders," who obtained children for brothels.
arsenokoitai (ar-sen-o-KOY-ti-ee) = prob. "male prostitutes," who could service either sex.
malakoi (mal-a-KOY-ee) = "soft, delicate, or effeminate" persons, including call-boys.
pornoi (POR-noy-ee) = "male prostitutes, fornicators."
© 2004 Bruce L. Gerig
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