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The Key Passage in Church LGBTQ Debates

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This week the Boston Globe asked the question "Can the evangelical church embrace gay couples?" Now that most mainline Christians decline to label LGBTQ folk as a special class of sinners, and now that the larger society has less patience for sexual intolerance than it once did, the evangelical world is experiencing the pressure in new ways. For example, students are coming out at evangelical colleges and forming LGBTQ student associations, and the colleges -- many of which forbid both homosexual and premarital sex -- must discern how to offer faithful responses to their students and to their core values.

The Globe article particularly points out that evangelicals are now wrestling with the Bible in ways they had formerly avoided. It features the work of my friend Jim Brownson of Michigan's Western Theological Seminary, the author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. His book devotes four entire chapters to Romans 1:18-32, the key passage in most debates concerning the Bible and same-sex sex. According to the Globe story, "Most theologians agree that Romans 1 is the hardest passage to interpret, and also the most important."*

Here I would like to point out some features of Romans 1 that are often neglected. There's much more to say about the passage, and many scholars will disagree with some of my judgments, but I believe these factors deserve recognition. Before I introduce these details, I'll simply state my main point: Paul indeed disapproves of homoerotic activity, but for reasons few contemporary Christians would be willing to endorse. In short, Romans 1 provides no justification for the condemnation of same-gender-loving people.

A close study of Romans 1 requires careful translation work, particularly regarding verses 26-27. Here is Romans 1:26-27 in the Common English Bible (CEB). Its rendering largely agrees with other popular translations like the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version. (I've emphasized some key phrases.)

That's why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.

This may surprise you, but in one respect the traditional King James Version (KJV) translates this passage more accurately than do most modern translations.

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

The italics emphasize two major differences between these translations: (1) Paul describes some desires and actions as "degrading" or "shameful" (CEB), while (2) Paul talks about natural "use" or "natural sexual relations" (CEB). Let's take a closer look at this language and what it means.

First, the language of "vile" and "unseemly" or "degrading" and "shameful" passions and behaviors reflects the ancient language of honor and shame. Ancient men cared a great deal about honor, the esteem in which they were held by others. And one important measure of honor involved masculinity, a man's ability to control himself and influence his environment. High masculinity was considered honorable; low masculinity was shameful. (One wonders how much has changed.)

Notice that Paul applies the logic of shame only to men. It may appear in Romans 1:26 that Paul is speaking of both men and women: "God abandoned them to degrading lust." But he goes on to discuss the behavior of "[t]heir females." In other words, the behavior of women reflects upon the honor or shame of men.

Now let's consider the second issue, which involves "natural use" or "natural sexual relations." A Greek word here, chresis, simply means "use" or "function." It's the kind of word that can take on broader meanings, and "sexual relations" is certainly one of those possibilities. But notice again that Paul ascribes a "natural use" only to women. Literally he says that the men have abandoned the natural use of women.

Now, here's the important point: Paul believed that women (but not men) had a sexual use, while the sexual passions of some men (more so than women) could be described as shameful. In other words, Paul's assumptions about sex reflect an ancient logic that places men at the center of things and pays attention to women and their experiences only in relation to men. According to this logic, sex involves a male role and a female role: somebody is doing something to somebody else. Women have a natural use. And when a man takes on a woman's role, he is acting shamefully -- that is, like a woman.

This ancient way of thinking about sexual intercourse pops up in our language all the time. Get the raw end of a business deal, and you might say, "I got screwed." Cut off in traffic, one motorist might say to another, "F--- you!" This archaic language reflects the logic that sex involves one person essentially using another, a logic in which receiving sexual penetration is natural for a woman but demeaning for a man.

I believe in full equality for sexual minorities in all aspects of life, including the church. And I am a huge fan of the Apostle Paul. Indeed, I believe Paul endorsed the full participation and leadership of women in the churches -- although this point is controversial. Just the same, I think it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that in Romans 1 Paul's thinking is heavily misogynistic, reflecting a way of thinking that was common (but not universal) in Paul's cultural environment. Christians who appeal to Romans 1 in condemning LGBTQ folk should know that they're also affirming a cultural logic according to which men enjoy the "natural use" of women.

A healthy biblical understanding of sexual morality cannot ground itself in an ancient worldview that demeans women. It's therefore pointless to debate the familiar proof texts that rely on that logic. A healthier model would look toward broader scriptural trajectories. One such trajectory would involve the biblical commitment that human relationships, including erotic relationships and family units, should contribute to wholeness and holiness. Another trajectory, present in both Testaments, reveals how God's people grow ever more aware of the expansiveness of God's blessing. The blessing has always been there. We're the ones who are slow to catch up.

*Romans 1 is especially important because it is the only biblical passage that mentions sexual relations between women, and because it presents the only argument against same-sex sex in the Bible. While Leviticus twice calls sex between men an "abomination," the same passages also prohibit intercourse with a menstruating woman (Leviticus 18 and 20). 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 may also refer to male homoerotic activity, but their language is unclear. (A comparison of several modern translations will bear this out.)