This is the fourth in a series of articles, by The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, and visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, DC, examining the Biblical texts traditionally used to address the issue of homosexuality from a religious (Jewish and Christian) perspective.
What Jesus Says about Homosexuality: .
That’s right. Jesus is not recorded as having said anything related to intimate sexual relationships between people of the same gender. One has to wonder, if homosexuality is such a heinous sin against God, why does Jesus himself never refer to it? One cannot extrapolate affirmation of such relationships from that silence, but still, why no mention of an issue now causing entire churches to split?
St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Passages in Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Corinthians, as well as a passage from I Timothy are cited by the tradition as condemning homosexuality. A closer look suggests some questions about that traditional understanding.
The Romans passage states that God has turned his back on the ungodly and wicked – most especially those who have given up the one true God for idols. Because of their idolatry, “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.” (Romans 1:26-27)
Once again, we ask the question of context. This passage must be read as part of Paul’s general observations and admonishments to the Christians living in Rome. Paul is making the point that Jew and Gentile alike need the Gospel, since all are unrighteous and in need of God’s saving grace. In particular, Paul is singling out the misguided practice of idolatry, rampant in the ancient world and contrary to God’s will, in which “they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” (Romans 1:23) In response to their devotion to idols, says Paul, “God gave them up to degrading passions.”
Paul would have been very aware that some idolatrous cults practiced temple prostitution as one of its devotional activities. Temple prostitutes were used for sexual acts – by both men and women – as an act of devotion to the idol. It is not clear that this is what Paul was referring to, but it is a practice which would have been familiar to him and denounced by him.
Note that these same-gender acts are a result of idolatry, not the cause of God’s anger. Once again, as in the Old Testament, when Paul uses the word “nature” he “apparently refers only to homosexual acts indulged in by those he considered to be otherwise heterosexually inclined; acts which represent a voluntary choice to act contrary to their ordinary sexual appetite.” Paul is referring to people who have “exchanged” or “giv[en] up” their true – and therefore heterosexual – nature. The words “exchanged” and “gave up” clearly indicate that these were people presumed to be heterosexual by “nature” who were turning their backs on their true nature.
And by “nature” here, Paul is not making a “natural law” argument (that would come much later in Christian history and theology), but rather, he is arguing from the natural, or customary, way humankind is ordered.
Finally, just following this passage (in chapter 2), Paul chastises his readers for any sort of judgmentalism on their parts: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1) While Paul has harsh words for idolators, he seems quick to point out that judgmentalism is to be avoided. Paul seems to be saying that using his words to judge homosexuals (or anyone else) in our own day would be a grievous error.
In short, we are not certain what sexual practices Paul has in mind in this passage. He simply does not tell us. What is clear is that these practices are related to the worship of idols – and clearly not what we are talking about today. Our questions involve a modern understanding of human sexuality in which a small minority of people – by their nature – are affectionally oriented toward people of the same gender, a concept unknown to the ancient mind. And we are not talking about temple prostitutes, but rather two people of the same gender who are drawn into a faithful, monogamous, life-long-intentioned relationship. Not much help here on answering the questions we are asking.
Read the relevant passages from Paul here:
20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 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.
28 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.
This is the fourth in a series of articles by by The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson. The Fifth Article is Homosexuality in I Corinthians and I Timothy.