I recently stated: “Homosexuality is not unnatural because if it was, it wouldn’t be found in so many different species.” In response to this, someone I know asked me to respond to Romans 1:26-27 (NRSV) which states:
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.
First off, in responding here, I believe this is a big responsibility. Not only for God, Jesus the Christ but for the bible and community – both those standing sure footed within the kindom of God and those clamoring at its fringes, hoping to get in but hearing they’re out unless of course, they change. Given this and out of respect for this person and those so readily hurt, I am bound to take seriously what is asked to peel back the layers (if you will) of this scripture. And so I begin.
When reading Romans we must consider the historical and socio-political context that Paul brings to it and ask ourselves what is he trying to accomplish with it; or, to whom is he speaking and what are his motivations? Once we determine these, we are then bound to consider our own context – what our aim is in reading the text – or, what are we asking the bible to be?*
The goal of Romans was to include people who otherwise were not included. During the time of its writing a number of new Christians were Jewish people who had come to believe. Given the journey they traveled in their faith they desired others to follow their lead. Therefore, when others, non-Jews, wanted to be included, the insiders tried to explain the hoops they needed to jump through in order to be one of them. The book of Romans was written to capture Paul’s resistance to these notions. Where traditional interpretation of Romans opts for a dualistic worldview, we can opt for an interpretation that is in defiance to the social Roman structures of Empire at the time. Saul himself was a Jew. He worked with papers of the Empire to do what he set out to do that is, until he met Grace and was transformed by it into Paul – not by what he did but by whom God was. Therefore, rather than see Romans as our reformation history would tell it, perhaps we should focus on what it demonstrates in Romans 10 – and open the circle to include – not stand in judgment nor prohibit one’s entry. Given this, a question we could ask today is, “Who is the outsider? Who are the Gentiles of today?” Fundamentally then, the real intent of Romans is liberation and freedom. Perhaps our use of Romans then could do likewise and free people?
A couple of things we know of Paul. He never married. He never had children and preferred a life of celibacy (1 Cor. 7) to that of marriage. Some scholars even suggest Paul himself struggled with his own orientation, or perhaps it was his “Damascus road” devotion that occupied him, keeping him from seeking relations in a covenantal way. Regardless of our opinion, Paul himself behaved odd (or dare I say, queer). His behavior stood outside the norms. He either maintained relations outside covenant or failed to use the God-given semen to produce. Therefore, Paul himself did not conform to what some claim today to be “traditional family values.”
Therefore and perhaps more vital than our determination of who Paul was, is when we speak of Paul, we must consider what was really written, to what we are reading back into the bible. Too often many read Romans to seek support for positions that simply are not there. Where Romans has often been used to create dual-isms of law versus grace, of insiders versus outsiders, of male versus female it becomes our imperative, as lovers of both God and neighbor – to read carefully and critically the message within to which we find, as stated above, – Romans is a message of liberation and freedom, not division and judgment.
Obviously, the scripture I am asked to respond to is clearly written against sexual behaviors that do not conform to procreation or ‘natural’ sexual practices. However, if we consider what was natural then was determined by biology, body and genitals over our understanding today of natural as determined by chemistry, brain and hormones perhaps we can reread this scripture in search of broader meanings? Simply put during the time of Paul, science of the body was little understood. Rather than throw out the scripture deeming it irrelevant perhaps we need more than ever, to back up, taking a more comprehensive view on its intent?
Therefore, given this and our desire to do the right thing, we must also ask – does there exist a different understanding today of what homosexuality is from what it was then? Perhaps our modern definitions of homosexuality and heterosexuality and behaviors were understood differently in the ancient world? And in fact, in reading the narratives of the bible, we see for instance, females were readily offered for sex. During ancient Gomorrah, as elsewhere, females were offered for sexual exploitation as a measure of hospitality and during the time of Jesus women we relegated to and then condemned by prostitution over being cared for by the community, as Jesus encouraged.
Underlying much of this discourse is a presumption of a hetero-normative behavior that is determined by our current social structures. While we speak of sexual behavior and males and females we do so from a predetermined notion of what that means. While we have yet defined males or females, homosexuality or hetero-sexuality, we somehow know what is meant and we are using our understanding as a guide to measure all things by. A question we should ask ourselves then is, “Who is defining these structures and who is served by these structures?”
Whenever we read scripture including Romans, we automatically impose these notions of gender roles and identifications upon the meanings. However, as we must reconsider what is natural, we must also distinguish between the sex & gender norms we understand today from yesterday. People today may physically be one gender while identifying as another or attracted to the same. Today we understand there is a difference between orientation and identification and science has shown that we all sit along a continuum rather than occupy any one polar extreme. Sexuality, gender and identification are fluid. It is in these ways then and as we read Romans, for guidance on moral behavior we must bear in mind what behavior we are seeking to understand or how what happened then informs what we know today. In fact, to do as many do in bringing “together a group of brief and diverse biblical references and say they are “about” a thing called ‘homosexuality’ is to impose a modern and possibly hetero-normative agenda upon them.”** Given this, our responsibility as theologians and practitioners of the Good News increases as we seek to expand the kindom of God, including all – Gentile and Jew, Male and Female, Black and White, Slave or Free, Gay or Straight and everything in between.
The bottom line then, as it pertains to this scripture, Paul never faced the question we now face. He never had to ask nor answer, by what means is sexual action and nature determined although, in reading the epistles, we can see he did concern himself with men and woman’s hair length (1 Cor. 11:14-15); something that, by today’s standards, would be silly. I know there is more here to say. I welcome comments, thoughts and questions as we seek to love our neighbor and bring forth kindom of heaven here on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.
* Controversies in Queer Theology by Susannah Cornwall, (London, UK: SCM Press, 2011, 122). ** Controversies in Queer Theology by Susannah Cornwall, (London, UK: SCM Press, 2011, 123).