Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from.
(Scheduling note: Our next installment in this series will be on October 22. I’ll be on the road speaking next week and unable to moderate and participate in the conversation.)
Today we reach a critical chapter in Matthew’s book, for it deals with one of the two New Testament texts commonly cited to oppose same-sex relationships.
Perhaps the most significant passage in the debate regarding the Bible and same-sex relationships is Romans 1: 26-27, which opponents to same sex relationships often point to as a “clear” statement on the matter.
The passage is part of the apostle Paul’s message at the opening of Romans about how “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Romans 1 focuses on how Gentiles have fallen short, and Romans 2 focuses on how Jews like himself have fallen short. (This sets up Paul’s argument that redemption for both is offered through Jesus Christ.)
According to Paul, the sins of the Gentiles are rooted in their worship of idols, which led them to indulge in vices like envy, slander, gossip, murder, arrogance, and “shameful lusts.” Here he notes: “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones” and the men “abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.”
“Pau’s depiction of same-sex behavior in this passage in indisputably negative,” acknowledges Matthew. “But he also explicitly describes the behavior he condemns as lustful. He makes no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment. So should we understand Paul’s words to apply to all same-sex relationships, or only to lustful, fleeting ones?”
To get to the bottom if this question, we have to discern why Paul wrote what he did—the principle behind his statements.
[Here, almost as an aside, Matthew makes a very important point: “Focusing on the reason behind biblical statements is not a new principle. Christians of all stripes ask not only what but why when we study Scripture.” He cites slavery as an example. The New Testament authors often tell slaves to submit to their masters (Titus 2:9-10, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Colossians 3:22-25, Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 2:18-24), a point not lost on those Christians who advocated for the preservation of slavery during the Civil war. To make a case for abolition, Christians had to look beyond what appears on the surface to be an endorsement of slavery to examine why the New Testament authors wrote what they did. While Matthew doesn’t spend much time on this particular issue, this is what ultimately changed my mind about LGBT people and the Bible. The moment I realized I couldn’t win a “proof text” war with a slave-owner was the moment I realized that in discussions like these, we can’t rely on a few Bible verses pulled from their context—not when lives are at stake. But more on that at a later date…]
So what did Paul mean when he wrote Romans 1?
As has already been shown, same-sex relations in the first century were not thought to be the expression of an exclusive sexual orientation but were widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire wherein the one engaging in same-sex behavior did so out of an excess of lust that could not be satisfied. The most common forms of same-sex behavior in the Greco-Roman world, Matthew notes, were pederasty and sex between masters and their slaves, and the majority of men who indulged in those practices also engaged in heterosexual behavior with their wives. So we’re not talking about committed, monogamous, sacrificial relationships here. Not by a long shot.
Citing the writings of Philo, Plato, and Dio Chyrysostom, Matthew notes that same-sex relations were not considered objectionable to these writers because partners shared the same anatomy, but “because they stemmed from hedonistic self-indulgence.”
Matthew provides multiple examples of this reality (both in this chapter and others). Particularly relevant in this case is Dio Chyrysostom’s argument that some men had such insatiable sexual appetites they abandoned the “easy conquest” of women for more challenging sex with males, and John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans 1 in which the father of the Church states: “[Paul] does not say that they were enamored of one another but that they were consumed by lust for one another! You see that the whole of desire comes from an excess which cannot be contained itself within proper limits.”
The concept of same-sex orientation and the notion of committed same-sex relationships was simply not part of Pauls’—or these other writers’— worldview. “In Paul’s day, same-sex relations were a potent symbol of sexual excess,” writes Matthew, and so “they offered an effective illustration of Paul’s argument: We lose control when we are left to our own devices.”
“But while that principle remains true today,” he says, “the specific example Paul drew from his culture does not carry the same resonance for us. This is not because Paul was wrong—he wasn’t addressing what we think of today as homosexuality. The context in which Paul discussed same-sex relations differs so much from our own that it cannot reasonably be called the same issue. Homosexuality condemned as excess does not translate to homosexuality condemned as an orientation—or as a loving expression of that orientation.”
I don’t know about you, but I don't know any gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians today who pursue same-sex relationships because they have grown tired of heterosexuality and want to try something new. The gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians I know tell me they have experienced same-sex attractions for many years, often since childhood, and simply want to be in a committed, sacrificial relationship with someone to whom they are attracted. And Matthew's analysis of this passage, which is shared by many other biblical scholars, gives me reason to believe Romans 1 isn't speaking about them.
Unnatural – like long hair
So what about the words “natural” and “unnatural”? Wouldn’t they suggest that Paul, like so many who crudely argue the case today, condemned same-sex behavior because the “parts don't fit?”
Matthew again returns to what no good biblical scholar would dispute: that many of the gender roles alluded to in Scripture are rooted in patriarchy. In the ancient world, if a man took the active role in a sexual encounter, his behavior wad generally deemed “natural.” If he took the passive role, he was derided for engaging in “unnatural” sex for supposedly playing the role of a woman. The opposite was true for women: sexual passivity was deemed “natural,” while dominance was “unnatural.”
Once again, Matthew cites multiple ancient authors, including Philo, Plato, and Josephus, to show how the terms “natural” and “unnatural” were used in ancient writings. “They were not synonyms for ‘straight’ and ‘gay,’” he concludes. “They were boundary markers between what did and did not conform to customary gender roles within a patriarchal context…In societies that viewed women as inferior, sexual relationships between equal-status partners could not be accepted. Same-sex unions in particular disrupted a social order that required strict hierarchy between the sexes. We see this hierarchy reflected in Romans 1 by the use of the phrase ‘their women’ in verse 26, which points to the subordinate role of women in ancient times.”
This doesn’t mean Paul himself was sexist, Matthew argues, particularly given his high praise of women throughout his epistles. But it could mean he simply invoked the terms “natural” and “unnatural” as a shorthand reference to what the ancient world would have understood as a violation of accepted cultural norms regarding gender roles, motivated by excessive, unctrolled lust.
Here is where Matthew makes one of his best points of the book, one that I particularly resonated with given my own experience with head coverings during my year of biblical womanhood.
The apostle Paul makes the very same appeal to “natural” and “unnatural,” in the context of gender roles, when he argues that women should wear head coverings: “Judge for yourself,” he writes, “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair it is her glory?” (I Corinthians 11:13-15)
“Nature” and “disgrace”—these are the very same words Paul uses when discussing same sex behavior in Romans 1:26-27! And yet most Christians today do not read 1 Corinthians 11 as a universal dictum regarding God’s design for hairstyles and head coverings.
Citing Jim Brownson’s scholarship on the topic, Matthew notes that these norms regarding hair length, head coverings, and hierarchal gender roles were rooted in the honor-shame cultures of the Mediterranean, where violating them could do serious harm to the spreading of the Gospel.
Concludes Matthew: “For Paul, same-sex desire did not characterize a small minority of people who were subject to special classification—and condemnation—on that basis. Rather, it represented an innate potential for excess within all of fall humanity.”
He cites fifth century Christian bishop Julian of Eclanum who interpreted Romans 1 as a contrast of those who make “right use” of sexual desire with those who “indulge in the excess of it.” For Julian, the moral of Romans 1 is that “he who observes moderation in natural [desire] uses a good thing well; but he who does not observe moderation abuses a good thing.”
This is a takeaway that applies to all readers of the text—gay or straight.
Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.
Questions for Discussion:
1. What do you think of this interpretation of Romans 1? If it is not a condemnation of people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, what might be the message? What can we learn from it?
2. This study has shown the degree to which patriarchal assumptions affected so much of what was considered "shameful" and "unnatural" in the ancient world. How do we continue to relate to Scripture as inspired and authoritative, even when it reflects these (and other) cultural norms that no longer apply today?
I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation!