Today in the “On Faith” column at the Washington Post, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson turns to the New Testament, and unfortunately starts off by embarrassing himself. He begins with this:
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?
This is just sad. It is the kind of “argument” used by people who literally know nothing about the Bible, not to mention the basics of logical reasoning. Though it is absurd to have to do so, let’s recall some of the other things about which Jesus said nothing that are explicitly condemned elsewhere in Scripture: incest, bestiality, communicating with the dead, child sacrifice, consulting with mediums, etc. For goodness sake, Jesus never in so many words condemned idolatry! Why do you suppose He wouldn’t have mentioned an issue that would come up so frequently in the life of the early church? Might it not be because it was simply assumed that any Jew worthy of the name would have nothing to do with idols, or any of the other sins I mentioned? Paul dealt with several of these because they came up in the churches to which he ministered, but Jesus had no need to deal with matters about which there was no controversy in first century Judaism, so He didn’t. I’m glad Robinson doesn’t “extrapolate affirmation” from silence, but even mentioning this lowers the quality of his case to that of the ignorance often found in “On Faith” comment threads.
Well, from this he moves on to Romans 1, and takes on Paul’s use of homosexual behavior to illustrate the fallen state of humanity:
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.
Excuse me? This is actually part of a sustained theological argument that extends for much of the letter. Anyway, do go on:
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.”
More broadly, this first part of Paul’s argument is about the wrath of God, which “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (v. 18) Idolatry is the pre-eminent symptom of that ungodliness and unrighteousness, of the futility of their thinking and darkness of their hearts. (v. 21) That spiritual condition expresses itself in a wide variety of ways, including “covetousness, malice…envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv. 29-31), not simply or solely in terms of homosexual behavior (“degrading” or “dishonorable 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.
That last is true, but irrelevant. There is no hint here that Paul is referring only to homosexual behavior that takes place in pagan temples. In fact, given the Old Testament background, which doesn’t distinguish between religiously motivated homosexual acts and any others, it is far more plausible that Paul is referring to all homosexual behavior.
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.
Here again, the idea of sexual orientation–supposedly unknown to Paul–slips in anachronistically. If Paul doesn’t know the idea of sexual orientation, he can’t be basing his argument on the idea that all people are “naturally” heterosexually oriented. His reference to “nature” in this passage has to do with God’s design for sexual expression, in which any sexual activity–heterosexual or homosexual–outside the bonds of marriage is considered illicit.
Imagine this: a person claims that he is sexually attracted to children. He’s always been sexually attracted to children. He is not attracted to adults of either gender. If they have sex with adults, he feels awful, even guilty, because he did something he didn’t really want to do. By Robinson’s argument, biblical strictures against sex with children wouldn’t apply to this person, because it would be denying his true nature to have sex with adults, so he should be allowed to have sex with children.
Now, please don’t complain that I’m comparing gays with child molesters. I’m not. I’m simply offering an analogy that is based on the argument regarding “nature.” If you prefer, think in terms of the alcoholic who, with more justification than the homosexual, can claim that his alcoholism is genetically based, and so releases him from the biblical injunctions against drunkenness. If you don’t like that one, come up with your own. But the point is that Robinson is claiming that orientation excuses actions, when it doesn’t, and is seeking help from Paul, who won’t cooperate.
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.
This is simply absurd. So is Paul also saying that we may not judge murderers, slanderers, gossips, or others who he lists in verses 29-31? Of course not. He is referring to the universality of sin, which renders us incapable to judging the person; he himself judges various forms of sin repeatedly, not just in Romans but throughout his letters, and even calls on churches to expel those who are guilty of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5). Saying I may not judge the homosexual as a person is not at all the same as judging the homosexual act and warning that it is sin that God condemns. But that’s a distinction that I suspect Robinson would reject, despite the fact that without it, no moral judgment of any kind is possible.
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.
Actually, Paul is pretty clear about what sexual practices he’s condemning, and those practices are related to the worship of idols, which is as relevant today as it was then. Verses 24 and 25, which Robinson neglects to mention, make that clear:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Idolatry is, at its root, about worshiping the creature, namely ourselves. When we dishonor our bodies (as virtually all of us do at times, whether through forbidden sexual practices, use of pornography, gluttony, drug use, etc.), we engage in idolatry, and incur the wrath of God for which the only refuge is Jesus Christ. That is indeed what Paul is talking about, and we ignore him or twist the meaning of his words at our peril.