Sunday Superlatives 10/19/14: Travel Edition

I was offline this week traveling from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Charleston, West Virginia, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Phoenix, Arizona to hang out with the Methodist, the Lutherans, and the evangelicals. So today’s superlatives go to the most memorable experiences from the week. Feel free to share your picks from the blogosphere in the comment section. 


Lightest Packer: 
Yours Truly with six days of travel crammed into one backpack and a purse 

Most Unnerving: 
Delta pilot in Chattanooga with “Take a look at that windsock! This should be exciting!” 

Scariest Airport: 
Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia with its 6,302-foot mountaintop runway 

Best Dancers: 
Members of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church Clergy School who opened their first session dancing to “Happy” 

Best Conversation:
My conversation/interview with Laura Harbert Allen on Southern life, LGBT equality, and faith 

Best Sermon: 
Rev. Telley Gadson on 1 Corinthians 13 at the West Virginia Conference UMC Clergy School (if I can get my hands on the sermon itself, I will share it!) 

Funniest Crew Member:
Delta flight attendant with “If you haven’t been in a moving vehicle since 1985, here’s how you fasten your seat belt.” 

Most Beautiful: 
Good Earth Village in in Spring Valley Minnesota with FALL 

Most Stimulating:
Talking about the sacraments of baptism, confession, communion and anointing of the sick with Lutheran (ELCA) clergy in Minnesota. I loved these people and learned so much. 

Best Light-Reading for a Long Flight: 
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 

Best Deep-Reading for a Long Flight: 
The Atlantic Monthly’s November issue and Jon Lee Anderson’s breathtaking feature article, “The Mission” in The New Yorker  

Best Hugs: 
Participants at the Barefoot Tribe Conference at The Grove in Phoenix whose warm welcome will not soon be forgotten 

Coolest Idea:
Artist Scott Erickson created this as I spoke about gender equality at Barefoot Tribes

Most Inspiring: 
When the people of The Grove church shared how they took this post and brought it to life by holding a great feast for more than 675 people at one table! 

Best Feeling: 
HOME!!!!!!!

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In spending time with Christians from a variety of church traditions this week, I was reminded of the degree to which theological and ecclesiological diversity strengthens the Body of Christ. It was especially encouraging to talk about the sacraments (the topic of my next book) with groups that express those sacraments in different ways. I learned a lot and I felt like I contributed a lot too, which is the best way to feel after a trip like this one. Thanks to everyone who instructed me, listened to me, encouraged me, and fed me this week.  I came home feeling tired but grateful. 

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So, what did I miss online this week? Share your favorite links in the comments and I’ll catch up! 

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Sunday Superlatives 10/12/14

Cutest:
The New York Times treats second graders to fine dining 

Wisest: 
Charles Blow (in an interview with Jason Parham) on masculinity

“I believe that we have drawn masculinity in this incredibly narrow, rigid, dangerous way. We think of it as a peak, and I think of it as an ocean…Boys are constantly confronting this notion of failure because they cannot live up to idea of people saying to them, Man up! Be a man! And they don't know what that is because they're just trying to be human. And being human is sometimes fragile. I believe we have to redraw our collective concept of what masculinity is so that it includes the possibility of difference and variation. And once we do that we free these kids up to be kids, and to be human beings.”

Bravest: 
Sarah Schwartz at Deeper Story with “Antidepressants as a Means of Grace” 

“On Wednesday mornings, the high school ministry team I was a part of met for breakfast at a local diner. As we swapped prayer requests over bad coffee and scrambled eggs, I shared that I had started taking medicine to help combat my depression, to which the leader of the team, a senior boy I admired, turned and forcefully informed me, ‘You know, that would go away if you just trusted God enough.’”

Coolest:
“Undulatus Asperatus: A New Cloud Type” 

Most Powerful: 
Amena Brown at MOMcan with “Be You Bravely” 

Most Inspiring (nominated by Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu):  
Christy Wade with “How a Transgender Lady Helped Me Not Walk Away Fom My Christian Faith” 

“For an hour, I listened as she shared her story of coming to terms with her faith and gender identity. I was amazed she went to seminary at Baylor and had served as a Baptist preacher. She listened as I shared my journey and how I was struggling. I learned we shared the same belief that the Bible was more than a book of literature. She told me I didn’t have to disregard Scripture. It was obvious she was a woman of vibrant, deep Christian faith. Hope entered my life again. I was overwhelmed with God’s presence and tangibly felt His love wash over me. My life changed that day, and I began my journey of reconciling my faith and sexual orientation, whatever that would look like.” 

Most Informative: 
Marg Mowczko with “Paul and Women in a Nutshell” and “The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women” 

“Paul was not a misogynist: he did not hate or mistrust women. Paul valued Priscilla, Euodia and Syntyche as his co-workers in gospel ministry. He refers to Junia as his relative (or compatriot), his fellow prisoner, and as outstanding among the apostles. He commends Phoebe to the church at Rome as “our sister”, a patroness of many, a minister of the church at Cenchrea, and he probably sent his letter to the Romans with her. He acknowledges the ministry labours of Mary of Rome, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis…”

Most Insightful: 
Richard Beck with “Be Holy to Love Each Other” 

“We are called to be holy as God is holy. We are to purify ourselves. But what is the goal of holiness? For what purpose is purity? The purpose and the goal of holiness and purity is that we will have sincere, genuine, deep and mutual love for each other. Holiness and purity are not the opposite of love. Holiness and purity are the cultivation of love.  The holy person is the loving person. The pure person is the loving person.”

Best Headline:
Andy Borowitz at The New Yorker with “Man infected with Ebola misinformation through causal contact with cable news” 

Best Profile: 
Wyatt Mason at New York Times Magazine with “The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson” 

“…And it was here that Robinson brought up fear: How it has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should “do something.” In her case, that “something” has been writing. For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is “testimony,” a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.”

Best Series: 
Rebecca Lujan Loveless with “An Uneven Scale: Blog Series on Western Evangelical Justice Work” 

Best Op-Ed:
Nicholas Kristof with “The Diversity of Islam” 

“Beware of generalizations about any faith because they sometimes amount to the religious equivalent of racial profiling. Hinduism contained both Gandhi and the fanatic who assassinated him. The Dalai Lama today is an extraordinary humanitarian, but the fifth Dalai Lama in 1660 ordered children massacred ‘like eggs smashed against rocks.’ Christianity encompassed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and also the 13th century papal legate who in France ordered the massacre of 20,000 Cathar men, women and children for heresy, reportedly saying: ‘Kill them all; God will know his own.’”

Best Reflection:
Ruthie Johnson at Missio Alliance with "Restoring Unity: The Invitation of the Banquet of Heaven"

“In order to move towards unity as the Church, we must first practice the incarnational Kingdom in small, meaningful and routine places, such as meals. Our daily actions and interactions with those who are different—seeking to build bridges across, gender, theology, socioeconomics and race build skills to help us move toward unity as a whole.”


Best Advice:
James Hamblin at The Atlantic with “Buy Experiences, Not Things” 

Best List: 
Peter Enns with “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About the Bible” 

“An extremely important lesson for Christians to learn from Judaism is that the Bible invites debate. In fact, it can’t avoid it, given how open it is to multiple interpretations. Winning Bible feuds with others, getting to the right answer, isn’t the end goal. The back-and forth with the Bible, and with God, is where deeper faith is found.”

Best Perspective:  
Jim Wallis with “Ebola is an Inequality Crisis” 

“The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high- and middle-income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make these things accessible to low-income people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. So now thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place.”

On Twitter...


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So, what caught your eye online this week? What's happening on your blog? 

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Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian….Response

Since our ongoing discussion around Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian, has highlighted an affirming view of same-sex relationships, I wanted to make space here for another perspective. Thankfully, my new friend Julie Rodgers was quick to graciously agree to join us for another installment of our “Ask a….” series: “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” 

Julie writes about the angst of growing up gay in the church and the hope she finds in Christ's story of restoration. She blogs about all things sexuality, celibacy, community, and (mostly) flourishing on her personal blog and with friends on the Spiritual Friendship blog. Julie earned a Masters in English for the sheer pleasure of stories (nerd alert), served urban youth the past four years through a ministry in West Dallas, and recently joined the chaplain's office at Wheaton College as the Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care. She's known to laugh loud and hard at all the wrong times. Julie loves Jesus. She says she “loves that He entered into the human experience and alleviated suffering in those around Him, and that He absorbed the pain of the world with His life, death, and resurrection.” 

You asked Julie some fantastic questions.  Here are Julie's responses: 

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Thank you, Rachel, for creating the space for me to share on your blog. Thank you also to those of you who asked thoughtful questions with a gracious spirit. Not only are your charitable spirits encouraging to me personally, but I also imagine that kind of posture calms the anxiety of silent observers who wonder if they can be honest about their sexual orientation and religious convictions, and also treated with tenderness and respect. We offer a gift to them when we’re gracious toward others in this conversation, assuring them they’ll be valued as human beings made in the image of God no matter what. 

From bperickson: Should a gay Christian committed to celibacy still come out publicly as gay? Why? What do you feel you have gained from doing so yourself?

One benefit is that the church needs more celibate gay Christian role models. They need to see gay Christians leading vibrant lives filled with intimacy, passion, and adventure. I know when I first envisioned a life of celibacy, I got an image of the future version of myself as a lonely old woman knitting in a cold cabin with famished cats everywhere. Part of the reason the future looked so bleak was because I couldn’t look to many others who were living into compelling stories as celibate men and women, and the future story the church imagined for me hinged on marriage. We need more celibate gay Christians to help the church imagine a robust life for single men and women, with an expectation that God will surprise us with His faithfulness.  

I can’t speak to what everyone should do since one’s sexuality is so personal and each situation so unique, but I would at least encourage people to open up to their inner circle. I felt strangled by shame during every stage of coming to terms with my sexuality (when I first acknowledged my orientation and then again after extensive involvement with Exodus International). “Coming out” simply meant I invited others into a corner of my heart that whispered lies that no one would love me if they really knew me. When they embraced me in that place I felt like I could finally breathe. I went from feeling isolated and unknown to believing intimate relationships were a real possibility for me. 

There are still countless misconceptions about gay people in the church. Many still don’t realize this group of people they perceive as “those people out there” are actually in here, in the church, seeking to love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. When I was a teenager, I felt like I had to either lie about my sexuality or leave the church altogether. Encountering other gay Christians gave me hope that I could work out my questions about sexuality inside the church—in the context of a loving Christian community—instead of lying or leaving. Also, I’m not sure we can know or feel God’s love if we don’t experience His love through His people. When I shared more of myself with other Christians and was embraced in that place, I thought: “If they know all about me and still love me, maybe God still loves me, too.”

From Guest: Like most churches in America, my church is generally made up of families. How can a church be sensitive to the needs of a person who has embraced celibacy?

The short answer: Consider inviting a celibate person to live with you (short term or long), have single people over for dinner on a regular basis (while your house is still messy and your dishes still dirty), and establish normal rhythms together like running errands or ordering takeout or watching Breaking Bad again. 

The longer answer: It seems like most of us tend to roll with people in similar life stages, and all of us would benefit from breaking out of those categories to build relationships that cross common barriers: age, race, sex, or marital status, among others. As a celibate woman observing families from the outside, it often seems like folks are solely focused on their own nuclear families. The relationships they do have outside of that are those they encounter in their natural circles: other soccer families or church families or PTA friends. While we all miss out when we lack diversity in our relationships, single people—particularly older single people—feel the blow badly. Let’s be real: celibacy isn’t considered a super sexy lifestyle. Few people choose it because the misconceptions cause people to feel they’ll be destined for a life devoid of love. This means there comes a time when only a small number of people share their life situation, so they actually WILL end up alone if we don’t intentionally step outside of our homogeneous circles.  

When we settle into our separate pockets of society, our relational lives start to look like scheduling an event a week or two out, where we meet up and tell others about the life we’ve lived over the weeks that have passed. What we long for, though, is everyday intimacy where we can put on our fat clothes and think out loud with one another without editing ourselves. In order for that to happen, we need to spend time together in the common routines of life. Both families and single people would benefit from this.

One example: I’m new here to Wheaton and I’ve developed a friendship with a young family that welcomed me when I first arrived, providing a room for me in their home while I searched for a permanent place to land. Just this past week, the mom was sick and the dad stayed home from work in hopes of keeping the kids alive for another day. As I was getting off work, they shot me a text asking if I could do something—anything!—to help them make it through the day, and it was no problem for me to show up at their house with frozen pizzas, ice cream, and wine. Then I helped the kids with their nightly routine and we all decompressed together: everyday intimacy. 

From Christina: How do you feel that your decision to be celibate affects your relationship with gay friends who have not made the same decision?

Each relationship is unique so it varies from person to person, but my friends and I tend to see a whole human being when we look at each other rather than just a “GAY” or a “SIDE A GAY” or a “SIDE B GAY”. I also tend to be drawn to those who seek to be gracious and humble, so whenever differences arise we’re able to acknowledge the tension of our different beliefs without feeling personally threatened by one another. Most gay Christians have been deeply scarred by the culture war, and most of us barely held onto our faith (many barely remained alive), so we’re pretty understanding of one another’s need for a lot of space and grace as we grow in our understanding of what it means to honor the Lord with the whole of our lives (including our sexuality). 

From Danner: I believe a person's sexuality is an integral aspect of who he or she is as a human being. Unlike my preference for black coffee vs. lattes, my sexual identity (and sexual relationship with my wife) is a very significant aspect of who I am as a person… Do you disagree with the assertion that sexuality is integral to the identity, and what are your thoughts on why God created you as a gay woman while forbidding you to ever live that out in a relationship with another woman?

I don’t know how integral one’s sexuality is to his or her identity (perhaps it varies from person to person, depending on the weight each person gives it). I believe my sexuality matters in the same way I believe it matters that I’m a woman or that I’m an introvert: they affect how I exist in the world and how I relate to other people. What’s most important to me with regard to my identity though—what I choose to give the most weight—is my faith. The deepest part of who I am is a follower of Christ who’s been rescued by Him, and the Bible informs my understanding of why I’m here and what I’m to be about. I might see through a slightly different lens because of my orientation, but it seems the Lord uses all the different parts of me—including my sexuality—to write a unique story of restoration that creates a little more beauty in the world. 

I don’t have a strong opinion about why some people are gay: research implies both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex. I’m more comfortable saying, “God allowed me to have a gay orientation.” 

Regardless, I do not believe He wants me to be alone. We’re wired for intimacy, and while we can live without sex, we cannot live without intimacy. The more we celebrate sustained, non-sexual, sacrificial relationships in our society, the less people will feel like the only way to experience love and intimacy is in the context of a marriage or a sexual relationship. It would also be helpful if Christians would resist the urge to hit the “panic” button whenever gay people experience deep affection for those of the same sex. As a young person, I was so concerned about the “risk” of relationships turning sexual that I erred on the side of suppression and isolation (which leads to destructive explosions). It was so life-giving to exhale and move away from a fear-based approach, choosing instead to be more concerned about the risks of isolation. That has enabled me to actually remain chaste for years because my needs for intimacy are met through rich relationships with both men and women, which didn’t happen when I was disconnected out of fear. We were made for relationships, and we can work out what it means to be healthy, whole, Christ-honoring men and women in the context of relationship.  


From Rachel P.:  have you ever been in love? How did it go? And supposing that your views on celibacy will not change, is being with someone romantically (perhaps someone else committed to celibacy) a viable option for your future?

While I’ve certainly felt the butterflies for a few women, I’m not sure I can say I’ve experienced the sustained and mutual affection that’s necessary for love to really take root. It seems like true love is discovered over time with another person, and since my relationships with women are directed toward friendship, perhaps my experience of love is shaped and informed by that end. There’s much more to explore there, but if I ever do experience a sustained and mutual intensity of attraction that feels overwhelming, I hope I’ll find a way to express it through intimate friendship. 

Sharing life with other people is important to me. I would love to end up in a communal living situation with solid folks who are married, single, gay, straight, and devoted to living into the New Testament’s vision of community and hospitality. I’m also entirely committed to having an extra room for down-and-out little hooligans to crash when they need a safe space to land (read: potential foster care or at least a place for hurting teens to belong). 


From Joshua: Do you ever feel like your personal struggles and decisions are being used as a tool by those on one side or the other in the debates concerning same sex relationships, and if so, what would you want those people using your decisions to advance their causes to know or consider?

Yes, and I’m very uncomfortable with that, particularly when it’s used to shame those who, for one reason or another, are in a different place. I see this as less of a Gay Debate Problem and more of a Human Problem though: we play the comparison game in almost every area of life and it inflates egos, breeds feelings of inferiority, or causes jealousy (among other terrible ways of internalizing the comparison culture). 

If it’s not in the context of the comparison game though, I do think it can be encouraging for people to connect with others who share their experience. I know it’s been life-giving for me to connect with celibate gay Christians because I felt so alone for so long. Even beyond the sexuality conversation, it’s encouraging for me to observe those who lead faithful lives—to learn from their examples, both positive and negative. I think we need role models, but a role model is very different than a story that’s used to shame or coerce someone else. 

Ultimately, I hope Christians will simply point people to Christ as our example. It’s been my experience that the more I’m captured by the beauty of the Gospel, the less I’m concerned about what will or won’t happen in every area of my life, including my sexuality and future relationships. I didn’t choose this path because of someone else’s story and I certainly didn’t choose it because others shamed me into it: I chose it because I fell in love with Jesus and this has been my response to His rescue. While these conversations are important, they’re simply not as important as people encountering the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and experiencing His love in the deepest parts of their hearts. 

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A big thanks to Julie for taking time out of a busy life to talk with us. Be sure to check out our series on God and the Gay Christian (Part 1Part 2Part 3) as well as the other entries in our "Ask a..." series.

See also "Why I Invite Guests With Whom I Disagree" and "The Danger of a Single Story"

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‘God and the Gay Christian’ Discussion, Part 4 - (Romans 1)

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 1Part 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. 

Romans 1

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.

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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.

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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!  

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