Per our mission of fostering theological conversation, ThinkTheology.org is hosting a conversation between Bill Hoard and our very own Luke Geraty in regards to homosexuality and the Church. This is a six part series where Bill will offer a perspective and Luke will respond (see the first and second exchanges). If you have any questions or comments, feel free to join the discussion below. Our authors will do their best to respond.
Bill Hoard’s 3rd Post
Of all the biblical passages cited as proscriptions of gay sex, Romans 1 is probably the favorite and I think understandably so. As I have already mentioned, there are legitimate scholarly debates over the translation of the only other direct mentions of homosexuality in the NT but Romans 1:26-27 seems far less ambiguous since, rather than using a particular term, it describes what it is condemning. Certainly in my own development on this topic, there was a time where everything seemed to hang on Romans 1.
So let me dive in. First, I think the basic assertion I just made is actually fairly problematic. It might be convenient if a basic description of an act could be taken to represent all possible variations of that act but that just isn’t how language and communication work. I think it is fairly certain that Paul is describing gay sex in Romans 1:26-27, but I do not think it is at all obvious that the Romans 1 description should be taken as representing all possible instances of gay sex. What needs to be asked is: “What was Paul talking about when he describes gay sex in Romans 1?” And in order to answer that question we will have to look into connotations of gay sex in the 1st century Hebrew and Roman worlds.
Let me be clear, I am claiming that while Paul may have been aware of something roughly analogous to our contemporary understanding of homosexuality, (though even the classical Greek approach doesn’t map perfectly on to our current model) it is an extreme stretch to claim that our contemporary understanding is what he would have been talking about in Romans 1. If that seems far fetched, let me illustrate with an example of how we use language:
If I were to say that I support the right of parents to have their child circumcised it would seem to be a fairly straightforward statement, and for most practical purposes it is. However, it is possible that some future scholar, studying my life and writings, could legitimately demonstrate that I am aware of the practice of female circumcision and thereby argue that I support the right of parents to have their daughter circumcised. The thing is, our future scholar would be dead wrong. I am entirely opposed to female circumcision. And yet the original statement “I support the right of parents to have their child circumcised” is still a true statement because in our cultural context, female circumcision is not a live option. Female circumcision (excision) is a thing I am aware of and is legitimately within the lexical domain of “circumcision” but it is not what I am talking about when I talk about circumcision in my American context.
Thus to assume that Paul’s description in Romans 1 automatically includes what we might refer to as a monogamous, covenant, gay marriage commits the same linguistic fallacy involved in assuming that I support excision. In order to determine what Paul was talking about, we have to look at the dominant cultural connotations of gay sex.
Contemporary scholarship suggests that there were three cultural understandings of gay sex which would have been available to Paul: The Hebrew, the classical Greek, and the Roman. Of these, I would argue that the Greek, while more nuanced and philosophical than the other two, is essentially irrelevant to Paul who was writing as a Jew to a mixed Jewish/Roman audience in a Latin context. A great deal of ink has been spilled speculating as to whether or not Paul would have been aware of the Greek theories on the subject but at the end of the day, even if he was, his knowledge does not warrant the claim that he was talking about them when he talked about gay sex in Romans 1.
So then what would Paul have been talking about? While scholars can get into all sorts of debate over exceptional, potentially loving, non-abusive instances of gay sex in the 1st century Roman world, they pretty much agree that the overwhelming majority fall under the categories of slave rape, pederastic dominance and abuse, temple prostitution, and adultery. As far as the Roman cultural connotations for gay sex are concerned it is safe to say that monogamous, covenant relationships were not what Romans meant when they talked about homosexuality, they were not a live option in that context.
But Paul was educated in a hellenized Jewish context as was a portion of his audience in Romans so that context is relevant as well. I will get more into this in the next post but for now I will maintain that the dominant Hebrew cultural connotation for gay sex included temple prostitution, gentile licentiousness, and adultery and seems to have mistakenly seen them as inseparable from any form of gay sex. As with the Romans, I maintain that monogamous, covenant relationships simply were not what 1st century Hebrews were talking about when they discussed homosexuality.
Furthermore, the immediate context of Roman 1 supports the claim that monogamous, covenant relationships are outside the scope of Paul’s discussion. Verses 26-27 are given as a social implication for refusing to worship God and are followed by a list of other practices which arise as a result of that refusal. The full list is uniformly ugly, other-damaging and blasphemous. The dominant Roman (and Hebrew) expressions of gay sex fit well on the list, but monogamous, covenant, same-sex relationships do not. To claim that 26-27 must include all instances of gay sex one would have to claim that verse 30 must include all instances of a child disobeying their parent. But we recognize that Paul is not condemning the refusal of Christian converts to obey a parent’s order to participate in idolatry or another religion. We see that as a fairly obvious exception, one might even say “when the fruit of disobedience draws someone closer to God, we may safely conclude that we are dealing with a form of disobedience Paul was not talking about in Romans 1:30”. That same statement can be made in reference to Romans 1:26-27: “when the fruit of gay sex draws someone closer to God, we may safely conclude that we are dealing with a form of gay sex Paul was not talking about in Romans 1:30”
- The cultural associations that Paul’s audience would have had with gay sex would not have included monogamous, covenant relationships. Therefore Paul should not be assumed to be talking about monogamous, covenant relationships.
- Exegetically there is space in Romans 1 to claim that Paul was not referring to every possible instance of an activity in his list of consequences for rejecting God. Therefore it is exegetically reasonable to claim that Paul’s description of gay sex does not necessarily include every possible instance of gay sex.
My question for Luke:
Do you think that a gay marriage can ever bring its members closer to God?
Luke Geraty’s 3rd Response
First I’d like to apologize for Bill and our readers for such a slow response! Bill sent me his third post months ago and I just got buried with other projects. Such is the life of a husband, father of five, pastor, and gamer (did you know that Call of Duty’s Advanced Warfare came out?!?!). At any rate, I am thankful for the opportunity to interact with Bill again.
In response to Bill I’m going to have to simply say that the scholarly evidence does not line up with his suggestions regarding the cultural context of St. Paul. This has been demonstrated in several of the works I’ve already noted, including William Loader’s The New Testament on Sexuality, K.J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, and, to a lesser extent, Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women. Any suggestion that Paul or the culture in which Paul wrote would not have had a context for monogamous, covenant relationships is historically unsustainable. This is something I’ve noted in my review of Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation (reviews 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). You can find direct quotes from these sources that demonstrate that Bill’s assumption is simply incorrect. The scholarly evidence has made it clear that Paul and the culture surrounding him were aware of homosexual relationships that are quite similar to modern homosexual relationships. While the scholarly community is a tough world to “live in” because it’s constantly changing and growing and finding new evidence, on a subject as important as this I believe we need to take the latest scholarly evidence and really consider its implications. According to the latest works (e.g., Loader, Dover, Brooten, etc.), there are good reasons to reject what Bill is suggesting here as simply incorrect. The latest scholarly literature (that I’m aware of) takes issue with Bill’s historical analysis. Furthermore, in addition to these aforementioned scholars, everyone needs to read Kyle Harper’s “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Norm.” The bottom line is that the scholarly guild has made it clear that St. Paul and his cultural context was familiar with monogamous covenantal homosexual relationships.
What I will grant to Bill’s view is that he is correct to note that we need to be a bit cautious in how we read into St. Paul’s epistles our own assumptions. For Bill, the assumption is that Paul did not include monogamous covenant homosexual relationships, or at least there should be room for ambiguity. For me, he did, though it’s possible he wasn’t specifically addressing all or just one of those “types” of homosexuality. Why do we reach different conclusions? I’d argue that we reach different conclusions because we have differing understandings related to biblical theology. In fact, I think that starting with the NT texts versus the OT texts is indicative of a problematic approach to biblical theology (as I’ve already stated). Furthermore, I do not view Paul’s Hebrew background as baggage to be overcome but as being quite important to understanding why he takes issue with sexual immorality.
There, when I read Romans 1, I am inclined to agree with Loader when he writes:
“… Paul sees same-sex intercourse as disorder and sets it in parallel to the disorder when people stop worshipping God and worship idols instead. Not only are the two disorders parallel; one is the consequence of the other. God let people continue their denial of God’s reality into denial of reality in their own lives. So they not only deny God’s reality, they deny their own nature as (heterosexual) human beings, and engage with those of their own sex instead or with the opposite sex. So this is not simply a transgression of a biblical prohibition which Paul assumes (Lev 18:22; 20:13); it is deliberate perversion of God’s intention and their nature.” (The New Testament on Sexuality, 227).
Or Richard Hays when he writes:
“The reference to God as Creator would certainly evoke for Paul, as well as for his readers, immediate recollections of the creation story in Genesis 1– 3, which proclaims that “God created humankind in his own image… male and female he created them,” charging them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1: 27– 28).” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 386)
My biblical theology sees homosexual practice (i.e., sex between two people of the same gender) as problematic because of my understanding of creation or “natural law” (Thomas Aquinas is helpful here). Paul’s framework for understanding human sexuality is deeply based on the creation motif and he is simply maintaining the sexual ethics found in the Old Testament.
Thus, when Bill writes that “Paul’s description of gay sex does not necessarily include every possible instance of gay sex,” I want to hit the “pause” button and remind readers that the words “not necessarily” seem to disappear when we understand the basis for Paul’s understanding of creation. Again, Loader and Hays are magnificently helpful here, as is N. T. Wright. Loader being particularly helpful because he isn’t one who holds to any form of a “conservative” understanding of the authority of Scripture. For Loader, Paul is clear… he’s just wrong.
Which brings me to a question I have for Bill. You write that you “maintain that the dominant Hebrew cultural connotation for gay sex included temple prostitution, gentile licentiousness, and adultery and seems to have mistakenly seen them as inseparable from any form of gay sex.” What do you mean by “mistakenly”? How does this impact your understanding of the infallibility of Scripture? Were the Jewish authors of Scripture wrong in what they recorded? Obviously this question has a lot to do with how you understand the nature of Scripture, so you can feel free to respond to that however you want, ha ha!
My response related to Bill’s question about whether or not gay marriage can ever bring its members closer to God is simple: it’s complicated! Ha ha!
What I mean by that is to acknowledge that God works in and through our lives. Things that may be outside of God’s prescribed will are still able to be redeemed or transformed. I have no doubt that God may work in the context of a “gay marriage” to draw someone closer to God. I do doubt whether a person can remain in a sexual relationship that is condemned by Scripture and remain experiencing God’s “shalom.” My inclination is that the community of the kingdom (the Church) should certainly love people where they are at while they disciple them.
I do wonder, Bill, if you have taken the time to read these scholars yet and to assess their work. If you have, I’d be interested to know why you reject their work.
 Probably a poor use of their futuristic resources but hey, whatever blows their hair back!
 This analogy still holds if I substitute the term “circumcision” with the phrase “surgical removal of genital tissue” so the fact that Romans 1 is descriptive does not substantively change the argument here.
 At a time when classical Greek thinking was 300-500 years old and about as relevant to the common person as enlightenment thinking is to my high school students: formative but not conscious and certainly not something they will cite.
 Bruce W. Frier and Crompton are particularly helpful on this.
 Romans 1:28-32
 I realize that many Christians do not recognize gay marriage as a spiritual reality so let’s specify a homosexual relationship which the two participants think of as a marriage and have had it solemnized by a church official.