But God’s anger is displayed from heaven towards all the impiety and injustice of human beings who by injustice suppress the truth. The facts about God are evident to them, because God has made them evident. For the unseen things of God, such as eternal power and divine nature, are made clear to the mind ever since the world’s creation, in the things that have been made. So they have no defence. In spite of knowing God, they neither honoured him nor gave him thanks, but became idolatrous in their reasoning and overshadowed in their hearts. Trying to be clever they became idiots, exchanging the glory of the undying God for the fabricated likenesses of mortal men, women, birds, animals and reptiles. For this reason God handed them over, in their hearts’ desires, to the impurity of dishonouring their bodies with each other. They exchanged the truth of God for a falsehood, by serving in worship the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever, Amen! Yes, for this reason, God handed them over to shameful affections: their females exchanged natural sexual behaviour for what is contrary to nature; and in the same way the males, neglecting natural sex with females, burned with lust for one another -males did shameful things with males, and so received in their own persons the due reward for their wrong belief. Because they did not think God worth their attention, God handed them over to a worthless mentality to do worthless things.
They were filled with all kinds of injustice, depravity, greed and malice; full of envy, murder, violence, deception and craftiness. They became whisperers, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, proud and boastful. Inventors of evil, they were disobedient to parents, irrational, faithless, heartless and ruthless. Although they know the just verdict of God, that people who do such things deserve to die, they do them and are pleased with those who also do them. (Translated M Mair 2016)
I am reasonably quick at translation but this passage took me several hours, because it is so contrary to what I think about same sex relationships. I felt a need to give accurate expression to Paul’s point of view, so that I could argue with it.
The first point to make is that Paul is interpreting homosexuality as contrary to nature and a consequence of a refusal to recognise the Creator of the natural world. He sees idolatry as contrary to nature and therefore as productive of other unnatural behaviour. He lists same sex activity along with a random list of all the sorts of evil behaviour he can think of. Although he notes that all such behaviour will receive divine punishment, he first of all interprets these behaviours as in themselves a divine punishment. Because of their cardinal sin of idolatry, God has “handed them over” to these destructive desires and actions. If we ask how God hands them over it becomes clear that God does so by doing nothing. Faced with idolatry God does not intervene, but allows the unnatural impulse to run its full course. Most of Paul’s list are behaviours we would judge as wrong, whereas we might readily question his condemnation of same sex relationships.
Except….Paul had probably never come across what we might call a same-sex relationship, other than the Graeco-Roman encouragement of a special bond, which might include sexual activity, between a mature man and a youth,who would gain from the older man’s experience and patronage. Apart from that Paul was looking at various sorts of commercial, casual and orgiastic sex. He understands such behaviour from the standpoint of his Jewish tradition. Although he no longer held the Torah to be the ultimate guide of good and bad, he clearly continued to use it as his main ethical criterion, and never as far as I know approved an action that would have been condemned by Torah. In the absence of the Torah he accepted that everŷthing might be permittted, but countered that not everything is good for us. If he had been pushed to justify his view of what is good for us, I think he would have referred to the “mind of Messiah”, the guidance of the Spirit, and the wisdom of the Creator God.
From that standpoint, he saw Graeco-Roman worship as unnatural, that is, as demeaning humanity by bowing down before other creatures, and as idolatrous, that is by creating false Gods whom he identified as the “rulers of darkness.” By the same standard, he saw heterosexual marriage as a natural relationship blessed by God, and all other sexual behaviour as unnatural. This is clear from his Corinthian correspondence. He saw same-sex activity as unnatural, mainly because it was commercial, casual or orgiastic, as well as because it was same-sex.
Paul’s application of his Jewish tradition to the life of Christian assemblies was creative. He recognised that Joyful News of Jesus Messiah pointed to a new creation in which Torah obedience was no longer necessary, and that many old distinction were invalid “in Christ.” Should he have been able to see that if slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female were one in Christ, then distinction based on gender should be abolished in the Assemblies? His letters show him struggling with that issue in regard to the role of women. Maybe if he’d been faced with people in faithful same-sex relationships, he might have included them in the category of Christian marriage, although that would have required a radical boldness.
He was not faced with such relationships and therefore continued to promote heterosexual marriage as the sexual relationship blessed by God, and to condemn all other forms of sexual behaviour as falling short of the ideal in some instances, or as demonic, in others.
I should make it clear that I think Paul was mistaken in his understanding of homosexual orientation. Doubtless then as now, there were men and women whose natural sexual desire was for their own sex. It seems to me probable that the forms of same- sex activity practiced in their society, would have exploited their orientation rather than nourishing it, but that does not make Paul’s wholesale condemnation right. Clearly the public reading of this passage as the word of God must be very distressing to people of homosexual orientation, and I would not do so without making it clear that it does not express my view or the view of my church.
But as against the variety of competing sexual moralities available in Scotland today, I would adopt a Pauline view in two key matters:
1. Like him I don’t think sex is as important as does our dangerously sexualised society. It has become a commercial commodity.
2. Like him I think that faithful marriage is the best form of sexual partnership, and that other forms of sexual activity should be judged by how well they contribute to faithful marriages. Unlike him, I think that in this regard homosexual marriage is as good as hetero.
( to be concluded)