People are going to protest against this ruling, and they’re going to quote Romans 1 in the protest. So, rather than ignore it or pretend it’s not there, let’s just deal with those passages head-on, shall we?
Yesterday (June 15, 2020), in a 6-to-3 ruling, the Supreme Court determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex, also applies to gay workers. The ruling means that gay people can’t be fired simply for being gay. People are going to protest against this ruling, and they’re going to quote Romans 1 in the protest. So, rather than ignore it or pretend it’s not there, let’s just deal with those passages head-on, shall we?
Here we go … Romans 1 is one of the “gotcha” passages used to beat up on gay and lesbian folks. I believe in the Bible: all of it. I just respect it too much to take the easy way out, which is believing every word I’ve been told about the Bible.
The Bible is written in the midst of a pansexual world. The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians routinely used same-gender rape as a way to demonstrate that they were the top of the heap, and there are Assyrian texts which appear to be blessings on same-sex couples. Later on, the New Testament is written to Gentiles who were converted out of the Greco-Roman culture, which applauded and even expected same-gender dalliances. There was a statue in Athens to the Tyrannicides, a male couple who stabbed a usurper, and a whole corps of the Theban army, the Sacred Band, was composed of couples. Zeus and Hercules had boyfriends, Roman emperors deified their departed boyfriends, Sappho’s love poems to her circle of female admirers were part of the curriculum educated people were expected to know by heart. And yet, the Bible speaks of homosexuality very, very rarely. Yes, Judaism disapproved — as did the early Church — but it seems without a lot of venom or air time. Remember, the early Church also disapproved of military service, higher education and private property, and Judaism disapproved of shrimp cocktails, work on Saturday, and keeping all of your harvest (and by implication, earnings) to use as you wish.
The Old Testament “gotcha” passages aren’t gotcha at all if you really look at them. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is there, sure — but it’s paralleled by an exactly similar heterosexual gang rape in Judges 19-21. In other words, gang rape is wrong no matter the gender of the victim or the perpetrators. Oh, and Ezekiel 16:49-50 is quite explicit that “the sin of sister Sodom” was arrogance and self-indulgence and turning a blind eye to the need of the poor and powerless. The Bible speaks pretty clearly here: Sodom is not about sexual orientation. Stop saying otherwise.
There are two passages in Leviticus 18 and 20, which both forbid lying with a “male” as with a woman and describe that as an “abomination.” The word there is a bit slippery, as it’s often translated as “male offspring” in other places (not always, but often). Since it sits in a long list of forbidden incestuous acts in both places, it may well (but not certainly) be about incestuous pedophilia. One way or the other, Christians generally have said that the endless rules and regulations of Torah don’t apply in the New Covenant–except, of course, when we want to apply them. Why do we want so much to apply these rules but not the ones about pork and cheating your customers, also described as “abomination”?
The New Testament has a couple of lists of forbidden activities which are translated by some versions as “homosexual offenders.” Those translations are wrong: there is no word in Greek (the New Testament’s original language) that would translate in such a way. Some translations say “sodomite.” They are wrong. There is a Greek word for that, sodomitikos, and it doesn’t appear in the New Testament. The words that are used, malakos and arsenokoites, are best translated as “feminine” and “men-bedders.” I Timothy 1 and I Corinthians 10, if you want to read the passages. Malakos, “feminine,” is a common word in ancient Greek, and yes, it means feminine in an insulting way–but remember, it’s the language of a people who view same-gender relationships as simply part of the normal landscape, not condemned as effeminate. Interestingly, in Plato and Aristotle, the word is used to mean vacillating and unable to endure hardship. Effeminacy means you are blown about by your appetites or the opinion of the crowd.
The other word is invented by Paul and used only a handful of times by other early Christian writers. It would seem to be clear in intent, but most of those other early Christian writers apparently didn’t think so–John the Faster, an early bishop, condemned men who commit arsenokoitia with their own wives, which can’t possible be turned into homosexuality! Let’s be honest, shall we: these two words don’t mean what most people want them to mean. We’re not precisely sure how to apply them. Since they’re linked, they may have something to do with same-gender prostitution, but that’s not clear. Better translations? “Weak-willed” and “pervert.” We all know that when we see it, right?
Which leaves this passage in Romans. And yes, it clearly and unequivocally condemns same-gender physical relations, for men and (uniquely in the Bible) for women too. But look at it clearly, friends. It condemns people putting aside their “natural affections” to try something new. It’s condemning the kind of jaded worldlings who would like to have a new thrill–the world of Studio 54, in other words. It’s condemning straight people who try a little something on the side. And specifically, it says that such attitudes are the sign of a broken and idolatrous culture. Whoa–read that sentence again. The kind of easy promiscuity which American television and movies assume as the norm, the club-drug-fuelled dabbling in all sorts of hedonism, the “sex as a form of self-discovery” school of thought, those are signs of an idolatrous and broken culture.
But frankly, the Bible doesn’t give a hang about our anxieties. It tells us to stop being afraid and get on board with the direction of God’s Kingdom. Which, last time I looked, was about love, not about fear and anger and disgust.
If we want to be honest and rigorous in how we apply Scripture, we need to be honest in saying that homosexuality (while certainly disapproved by ancient Judaism and the early Church) is not that big a deal, even though the surrounding cultures were pervasively pansexual. Being unkind to immigrants gets nearly 100 references — by the most “conservative” accounting, which I’ve just demonstrated is on pretty thin grounds, homosexuality would get eight. If you want to have a biblical ethic, you need to spend 12 times more effort and conversation on how immigrants get treated than on homosexuality. How many of the screaming voices are doing that?
There’s a great respectful dialog to be held on this topic in the Church, how we welcome the ministries of people in committed, consensual, adult, monogamous same-gender relationships. That’s a modern question which the Bible, in my opinion, doesn’t discuss at all. Not. At. All. But it’s a dialog that needs to be respectful, and thoughtful, and in order to do that, we all need to realize that, for the Bible, this really is a pretty minor topic. We’ve blown it clear out of proportion, friends. Which says more about our anxieties than it does about biblical priorities. But frankly, the Bible doesn’t give a hang about our anxieties. It tells us to stop being afraid and get on board with the direction of God’s Kingdom. Which, last time I looked, was about love, not about fear and anger and disgust.
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