Romans: The standard reading is that homosexual attraction is being described as a shameful lust that is deserving of punishment. However, if one reads all of Romans, or even all of Roman 1, it does not appear to be that simple.
First off, vs. 26 starts off with, “For this reason…” or “Because of this…” To rightly understand this verse we must understand what Paul is talking about because this phrase clues us into the fact that Paul is pointing back to something that has caused the situation he is about to elaborate upon. While Paul has said much in Romans 1, it appears that 1:18-25 is the most pertinent.
It appears that Paul is referencing people do not worship God even though God’s Creation has left them without excuse (1:20) and after they have personally come to know God (1:21). Instead of worshipping the God they had encountered, they turned to actual physical idols (1:23). The passage continues that it was for this reason, that they had chosen to reject the one true God, that God gave them over to their sinful desires and shameful lusts and a variety of evils, including same-sex attraction. (1:24, 26, 29-31).
Read in its entirety this passage is not a clear cut condemnation of homosexuality but one part of a much larger argument. There are a number of questions and issues I would like to point out.
First, God gave them over to their shameful lusts after they choose idolatry after having encountered Him. Does this mean God kept their homosexuality or sinfulness in check until they encountered God and rejected Him? Second, this passage has a lot to do with worshiping other gods and actual physical idols. Is the reference to shameful lusts here to some sort of cultic prostitution?
Second, in the flow of this whole passage Paul is pointing out that while the sins of such people are obvious the Gentile believers and the Jewish believers have no room to judge them because they themselves are hypocrites, are involved in the same sins, and have no personal righteousness (Rom 2). This is why, Paul’s argument goes, we needed a new righteousness from God, one that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, not through our performance (Rom 3:21ff). It is interesting to me that many Christians turn this passage into a weapon used for judging and attacking homosexuals when the wider context is about how we believers do not have the right to judge others because we ourselves are unable to live righteously.
The ambiguous language of 1 Cor 6/1 Tim: In many modern translations the use of the word “homosexuals” in these long list of sins appears to provide a clear condemnation of homosexuality. However, I do not think the translation of the Greek words here as “homosexuals” is a fair one.
The Greek words used are malakos and arsenokoites. These words have been translated as: perverts, homosexual prostitutes, homosexual offenders, the self-indulgent, the soft, effeminate, etc. These words have a rather broad range and there is even a direct reference to a male committing the sin of arsenokoites with his wife. I believe it is misleading and wrong to translate these words into the English word “homosexuals” for a number of reasons.
First, the method by which we come to understand what an ancient Greek or Hebrew word means is an imperfect science. There is not an ancient Greek and Hebrew dictionary that we can consult for simple definitions. Many ancient words have a wide variety of uses and no doubt their use changed through time. So for example, the Greek word for baptize, that many Christians would read and assume meant a water baptism of some sort, is also used to discuss plunging one’s sword into an enemy’s belly and also used in reference to dying clothing.
To decide what a word means scholars devote lots of time to studying existing Greek and Hebrew writings we have found and make the best educated guess as to what words mean from their use in context. The results are often put into Greek and Hebrew Lexicons, which is our best attempt to create an ancient dictionary of sorts.
While for the most part reliable, this is still not an unassailable authority. New findings could challenge our current definitions of the word. Also, the bias and assumptions of scholars often come through. For example, if you look up the Greek word for “head” (kephale) in a widely used Lexicon, a product of years of our best scholarly research, you will find circular reasoning. Their statement is that one of the meanings of kephale is leadership. The support for this claim comes from is 1 Cor 11. There are no additional sources that are brought into support this. So if consults a lexicon in order to find out what Paul’s “headship” talk in 1 Cor 11 means, they will find a reference to the very passage they are searching out and a patriarchal bias, in both scripture and in the lexicon.
Second, while sexual acts among people of the same gender have existed forever in every culture, and this may be what is in sight when these Greek words are used, the modern concept of sexual orientation and homosexuality is relatively new. I think it is highly improbably that the Greek words used here somehow point to the concept of homosexuality that arose centuries later. When these words are used in the Bible and other Greek sources, the context of none of these passages clearly fit the concept of homosexuality. In the Greek culture in particular, many sexual acts between men would be described today as pederasty or the sexual abuse of children, not homosexuality.
In light of all of this, it is probably more likely that what is being condemned here is more in line with a contemporary condemnation of the practices of NAMBLA , not two adults of consenting age who are homosexual in orientation.
Given the realities of how we come to understand what words in the ancient Greek and Hebrew mean, and what English words we use in our translations, it is most likely impossible that malakos or arsenokoites signaled the contemporary understanding of homosexuality as we understand it today. While various sexual acts between people of the same gender in the ancient world, these concepts and acts appear to have no direct parallel with the modern categories of sexual orientation, homosexuality, or the concept of a committed and monogamous homosexual couple.
What can be said from all of this? If one considers the passages that have been traditionally associated with homosexuality to answer the question “is homosexuality a sin?” the simple answer is yes, homosexuality is a sin. This is what appears to be plainly obvious from the text to most readers.
However, if one examines these verses in detail, reads the broader context of these passages, and considers a variety of issues regarding culture, selective reading of the text, sexuality and translation, the issue becomes a lot less clear. This is because when one uses the Truth-Mine approach to scripture, one brings in all the problems and difficulties that approach brings. Unless someone can resolve all of the tensions myself and others have brought up about these passages one must admit that at the very least, the issue of homosexuality is not as cut and dried as most Christians make it out to be.
In my next post I want to explore this same question from the Revelation and Invitation paradigm and show how that approach may lead us to some alternate conclusions about this issue.