My heart beating and my hands shaking, I read Romans 1:24-27. Aware that I am attracted to other women, knowing that my commitment to the authority of scripture meant I wouldn’t be willing to shrug or explain these verses away, I was afraid of what they meant for my life, and what they said about me as a person.

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. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Do these words apply to me? I’m in love with a woman, does that mean I’m experiencing shameful, unnatural attraction? Has God me up to the “lusts of [my] heart to impurity”? And if I ever were to follow my inclinations and have a romantic relationship with a woman, no matter how committed and caring I am, would this relationships be shameful, unnatural, and would I receive in myself some type of “due penalty for [my] error?

Many believe these words are the most damning in scripture for those who would dare affirm LGBT sexuality. For many, though it’s easy to see how the other passages of scripture are unrelated to love between people of the same gender, Romans 1:24-27 is the exception.

My conclusions are different. After much prayer and study, I found the good news in these verses. I believe it has nothing to do with loving and romantic care between people of the same gender, but that they still have an important word to speak to all of us—gay straight, and bisexual alike.

It’s About Consumption Not Care

Let’s start with verse 24, because that is the verse that first introduces the conversation about sexual acts:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

Too often Romans 1:24-27 is read backwards, with the same-sex acts mentioned at the very end in verse 27 read into verses 24 to 26, but that’s the wrong way to read. The first introduction is that lust and impurity with groups of people who are dishonoring their bodies not with private intimacy between two, but “among themselves.”

Paul is talking here about the same thing he addressed later in the same book. Romans 13:13 says, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Paul is writing to Rome. In this passage he is specifically speaking about Gentiles to a Jewish audience living in Rome. So he was speaking about Romans. We know that wealthy Romans sometimes had orgies, often involving slaves and inferiors. This behavior is referenced in scripture and there are extrabiblical accounts as well. Read Browson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality for more information. These men would have had wives waiting at home with no say in the matter while they indulged in orgies.

This is Paul’s introduction to the topic and should not be separated from the continuing discussion in verses 26-27 which only expand on verse 24.

To say that these married Romans were a group of gay men would be to read into the text in the service of a point that one is seeking to make, but not the point Paul was making. To say that these relationships between people of the same gender involved fidelity and care is unfaithful to the text. The wives would certainly disagree.

It’s a Result of Idolatry

Perhaps the first part of this passage I noticed did not apply to me at all was when it spoke of this same-sex eroticism as being the result of idolatry. After describing idolaters who abandoned their creator for images and objects of created things, they “therefore” were given up to “lust of their hearts and impurity” (vs. 24).

Just in case that word “therefore” isn’t convincing enough. Paul made it explicitly clear in verse 25, stating that this is happening “because” of their exchanging worship of God for worship of images. He then returns to further explain the nature of the sexual sin in verses 26-27.

I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I certainly hadn’t abandoned worship of God. I was at seminary pursuing full-time ministry as a vocation. I wanted to be faithful to God, serve God and my church in ministry, I was fully committed to serving God and my church for the rest of my life, whether or not I was offered a job to do so.

What was I doing wrong? Why was I experiencing something that was the result of idolatry?

Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe my sexual orientation is something different. Surely what was happening to me didn’t fit what Paul was describing as a continued falling away from God that began with idolatry. If the first part didn’t fit, maybe this part didn’t fit either.

The Theme of the Passage is About Objectification

Stepping back and looking at the big picture of this passage made it make more sense. Paul does make this context clear.

  1. Worship of God is replaced with images; their fidelity to God is replaced by objects that look like created things.

  2. Honorable sexual relationships were replaced with dishonorable; their fidelity to their spouses also broke down and was replaced by sexual objectification of others.

  3. Righteous treatment of others was replaced by exploitation, malice, hate, and harm; their fidelity to humanity in general broke down.

I’ve written an in-depth explanation of how this works in the context of the passage if you would like to understand it better.

Same-sex sex is an especially useful example in this case precisely because in their society it never happened in the context of love and fidelity. There was always some level of exploitation whether it was sexual assault, pederasty, or orgies as in this case.

Same-sex sexuality wouldn’t serve as such a good example if Paul were writing today and not 2,000 years ago, because two men or two women who are married, share a mortgage, and raise children would be completely out of place in this passage.

For those who object, saying that what’s important is that Paul says “men committing shameless acts with men” is speaking not to context but to the specific acts, I have two things to consider.

First, we don’t treat all of Paul’s writings that way. When he says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head,” we certainly don’t take this as a commandment or a matter of church discipline. It’s the context of their day that men have short hair and women long hair, and violation of this cultural standard is shameful.

Second, this verse does occur in a context. Paul is talking about specific people who go from idolatry to sexual consumption to generally consuming other human being in their hateful and selfish conduct.

Same-sex eroticism only and always occurs in such contexts in scripture. Perhaps there is a reason for that. Maybe that’s the only context the biblical writers ever considered? We certainly have no evidence otherwise.

Vocabulary of Unbridled Lust

In his description of the behavior of the Romans, Paul scours the dictionary for every word he can use to describe their behavior in terms of consuming and exclusive lust, often stacking them on top of each other for emphasis.

In the course of three verses (24,26-27) Paul uses the words epithumia, pathe, exekauthesan, and orexei, all synonyms for lust. Some of these words individually are used elsewhere in the context of marriage, but taken together, with no context or indication of care and love, Paul has something else entirely in mind.

He is emphatically communicating his point. This isn’t the healthy sexual appetite in the context of care and fidelity, but lust, passion, desire, and craving unbridled and immoderate.

No Meaning for Same-Sex Couples

So what makes people willing to apply a verse about orgies in the context of idolatry, adultery, and objectification to same-sex couples? Same-sex couples do not belong in this passage. They wouldn’t fit. That much should be obvious.

One reason is probably that people are looking for a direct answer from scripture to their question about whether same-sex relationships are wrong. I understand that desire. But we shouldn’t try to force scripture to answer directly questions it never asked directly. When we are asking a question that was never asked in the Bible, we shouldn’t expect a direct answer.

Paul answered the questions of the churches in Rome in the 1st century. Not the questions in Ireland in the 5th century. Not the questions in China in the 14th century. Not the questions in modern Western cultures in the 21st century.

Some things are timeless. There are basic questions about love, the worship of God, and the treatment of others that are asked by all people at all times. The questions about sexual orientation do not fall in this category, and there are many other questions in our modern society that aren’t answered directly in scripture.

God must trust us to apply his principles. God must expect us to do the same thing Jesus did in Matthew 5-7 and understand the heart of God’s word and how it applies in our lives.

The other reason this passage is often applied to LGBT people is less innocent. The reason someone who does understand the context would think this passage is appropriate to same-sex couples is if they believe such relationships are inherently selfish and characterized by uncontrolled lust, objectification, and the breakdown of basic fidelity.

In other words, they believe LGBT people are inherently inferior and that when we make loving commitments to each other we aren’t motivated by love and care like those who make commitments to people of the opposite gender. They think we belong in Romans 1 with idolaters, people consumed by lust, hateful, arrogant, and foolish people who despise righteousness.

When you encounter such interpretations, you can be sure the willingness to apply these texts to people like myself are not based on a careful reading of scripture. Sometimes what’s really happening is a misunderstanding of who LGBT people are. It’s a misunderstanding of the type that once landed same-sex couples in prison in America for expressing affection (and still does in many countries), that leads to accusations of LGBT people being pedophiles for no reason but their orientation, and that fosters disgust, hate, and sometimes violence against sexual minorities. This understanding has no place in the heart of a Jesus follower.

Beloved LGBT readers, when you find in yourself love that is holy and good, the desire to give to another person all the beautiful ideals given to us in 1 Corinthians 13, and the desire to unite yourself with another human in such love, I hope you can see that your love is not what is being described by Paul. I hope you can learn to embrace the queer and beautiful love you have been given by God. I hope you can embrace the truth that is in Jesus, that love is worth sacrifice.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, who describes herself as having been lesbian until converting to Christianity, had this to say: “Romans 1, especially verses 24-28, contains the most frightening lines in Scripture to anyone struggling in sexual sin.”

Many who teach that same-sex relationship are sinful believe that in Romans 1 they have found the smoking gun. Consider this statement by Robert Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice:

“With good reason, Rom 1:24-27 is commonly seen as the central test for the issue of homosexual conduct on which Christians must base their moral doctrine. This is true for several reasons. It is the most substantial and explicit discussion of the issue in the Bible. It is located in the New Testament. It makes an explicit statement not only about same sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism. And it occurs within a substantial corpus of material from a single writer, which allows the interpreter to properly contextualize the writer’s stance on homosexuality” (p. 229).

I’ve had my own struggles with this passage of scripture, sometimes related to fear. Reading scriptures with openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit is the least talked about and most difficult part of discerning the will of God as expressed by any particular text. I’ve had to struggle through fear and defensiveness. Often, I wanted to believe Romans 1 does condemn same-sex relationships so that I wouldn’t lose everything I had as a pastor and respected part of the Seventh-day Adventist community. The reasons for fear are varied and personal.

Ultimately, Butterfield offers advice in a different part of her book that is probably more helpful. “When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack onto it.”

Let us approach with passage with trust and not fear, curiosity and not defensiveness, humility and not self-righteousness. We just might learn something.

Because there is far too much for one blog post, I’m going to tackle this passage in three posts.

  1. Interpretations that are non-affirming of same-sex relationships

  2. Interpretations that are affirming

  3. The relevance to our lives today and what Paul might say if he were here

First Look at Romans 1:18-32

The first thing most people do, myself included, is to simply read the passage. I recommend that you take a couple minutes to do so now. Romans 1:18-32.

The most important section for our discussion is verses 26-27:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

First, I want to recognize that simplicity of this passage. Taken on face value, it is describing sexual encounters between people of the same gender, and it is not complementary. These acts are a result of God giving them over. They are shameless, unnatural, and involve a penalty.

If all you need to know is what you know from your first reading of these two verses, you can stop reading now. If you have no curiosity about the context, and no openness to the thought that your understanding of words can change once you learn more about the circumstances and context in which they were spoken, then you won’t enjoy this post.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which this verse is found, contains sixteen chapters and 433 verses. These are two of those verses. That these two verses are such a small part of this book does not mean they are insignificant or should be ignored. On the contrary, these are important verses for this discussion and that’s why I’m taking so much time on them. What it does mean is this: They need to be taken in context of the other 431 verses.

Think about the last time you wrote an email. I mean a long email about something important. You made it long because there was a lot you wanted to talk about. You made it long because you didn’t want to be misunderstood.

The worst thing someone could do would be to come along and pull out two sentences, say those two sentences were clear, and make an assumption about what you were saying. You would hate it. You would not think they were taking you seriously. You would not appreciate it at all.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was a long, important letter. He wouldn’t appreciate this approach of taking two sentences out any more than you would. He would want to be understood. And there is one other huge factor that gives us good reason to ask ourselves what he meant by what he said, rather than simply going on our first impression, and that’s that his words were written 2000 years ago when Rome was the capital of the world. A few things have changed since then. We shouldn’t assume too much.

Something all of us need to get over is the idea that our first impression of any verse of scripture upon reading the English translation is always correct. That’s just lazy.

I’m not talking about those desperate moments when you just need to hear from God and you open up your Bible for some inspiration. I’m not talking about that. I am not saying we can’t read our Bibles and have confidence that God has inspired scripture.

I am saying that when it comes to verses that have serious doctrinal and practical implications for our lives and the lives of others, we should never take the 15 second version of a Bible study. We should dig deep.

Romans 1 is About Honoring God’s Creation Pattern

Christians who do not affirm same-sex sexuality also believe that understanding the context of this passage is important. They generally argue that Romans 1 is a reference to the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2.1

They believe Paul is not only making an isolated statement, but that his argument roots sexual expression in the creation of man and woman. Any sexual expression that is not between a man and a woman is wrong. It’s important for their case to make this argument, because if unrestrained lust is the only reason these sexual encounters in Roman 1:26-27 are wrong, it leaves to door open for same-sex committed love that is about covenant and not objectification.

Romans 1:18-24 is certainly packed with references to creation. In the position paper on “homosexuality” published by the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, the following statement was made:

Paul begins by referencing the “creation of the world,” and the power and divinity of God seen through “what has been made,” but then reflects how the story has changed. Humans now remake the glory of God into an “image” and “likeness” of “corruptible man,” as well as of “birds,” “animals,” and “creeping” things. The human then ends up worshiping these very creatures that humans were meant to have dominion over, and abandons the natural use of the “male” and the “female.” The inversion is complete, instead of having dominion over the beasts, humans now worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator.” They remake the image of God, in which both male and female were fashioned, into an intensification of either masculinity or femininity (Rom 1:20–25).

While this view certainly has much to commend it, the more I read Romans 1 in both Greek and English, the more apparent it became to me that this is a subtle shift away from Paul’s actual argument.

There are a few problems with this interpretation:

  • Paul doesn’t describe people exchanging dominion of animals for worship of animals. There is no mention of dominion or the responsibility of man to animals.
  • The list of things worshiped includes people as well as animals, so even the exchange of worship isn’t worship of animals, but worship of all created things, including humans.
  • There is no reference to the creation of man, the woman being from the man, or any of the ways Paul typically references the creation story. In terms of the creation of man and woman, the only words that connect are the word “man” and the word “woman.”
  • The only aspect of creation that Paul directly sites is that God is creator and people and animals are the creation. In doing so there is shared vocabulary, but not shared ideas.
  • The reference to images are better understood as relating to idolatry than creation.

Sometimes the implication is made that by using the word “nature” (Greek phusis) Paul is referring to the creation narrative, but that would be the only time in 11 uses of the word that Paul references creation. Furthermore, “nature” does not appear in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in the Greek translation, the LXX. It’s much more natural (pardon the pun) to think that Paul was using the word the same way he always does, as a simple description of how things are.

It’s About God, Not God’s Creation

There is a much more simple way to understand what Paul’s talking about. Read the passage carefully. Paul isn’t talking about the order that should exist among the creatures, but the order that should take place between the creatures and their creator. I recommend a careful read of Romans 1:18-25. Here are some points worth noting:

  1. The foundational idea is that what is plainly known to anyone is the existence and power of God through creation, what is known as general revelation. Paul specifically points out that even Gentiles should know this. They don’t have Genesis. Paul makes plain what the content of their knowledge should be: that God is God and God is powerful. This is known through observing creation. It is not specific knowledge about the creation narrative (vs. 19).

  2. They knew God, but they chose to worship God’s creation instead of God, that worship of creation includes both animals and humans, not a changed relationship between animals and humans (vs. 20-21).

  3. They did this through idols (vs. 22-23).

  4. Closely tied with this idol worship is giving in to lustful hearts and dishonoring sexual behavior “among themselves.” Their sexual behavior did not involve the covenantal boundaries of marriage. This may refer to an orgy (vs. 24-25).

I’d also like to expand on the way Paul uses the word “image,” because the argument is made that it’s a reference to the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1:27, which reads: “So God created man in his own image/ in the image of God he created him/ male and female he created them.”

However, Paul’s use of the word better follows the Old Testament prophets who spoke of exchanging the glory of God for graven images. Paul said in vs. 23, “[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (NASB).

A close reading of the text shows that it’s about the connection between creation and creator, not how the creation relates to each other, and that idolatry leads naturally to God “giving them over” to all kinds of lust. Note that the first time Paul speaks of this lust (vs. 24) there is no mention of same-sex sexuality, so the assumption that that’s all he’s talking about is specious.

This linking of idolatry and lust is not a new concept in scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of close connections between idolatry and sexual licentiousness (Exodus 32; 1 Kings 14:24; Isaiah 57; Hosea 4:12-14; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; and Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25). Sometimes those sexual behaviors involve same-sex sex, and sometimes they don’t. They always involve sexual encounters that are purely driven by lust and which have no relational or covenantal context.

What Does Same-Sex Sex Have to Do with Idolatry?

So it’s referring to idolatry and not the creation narrative, does that mean it’s not a legitimate restriction of all same-sex sex? We need to understand is how it’s connected to idolatry, and then we can answer that question.

Occasionally, I’ll read an argument about same-sex sexuality that connects it specifically to idolatry in a way that heterosexual sex doesn’t connect. John Piper makes the argument in this post:

When you exchange the glory of God for idols, the main one that you exchange the glory of God for is yourself. The idol that you have is yourself. Well, what sex is yourself? My sex is male… The deepest thing that I’ve ever hit upon for why God would disapprove of this is not just that the Bible says “Don’t do it,” and not just that God created male and female. Deep down there is a kind of idolatry involved in same-sex relationships that is very profound.

This is an argument that only sounds profound. It doesn’t translate to reality. A marriage relationships with someone of the same gender is about as much like a relationship with yourself as a friendship with someone of the same gender is a friendship with yourself. Just because someone is the same gender does not mean they aren’t an entirely different person. Each person who is not yourself is an entirely different human being. This should be obvious.

You aren’t kissing yourself when you kiss someone who also has lips. You aren’t having sex with yourself when you have sex with someone who shares your genitalia. You aren’t sharing thoughts with yourself when you share them with someone of the same gender and sharing them with someone else when they of a different gender.

Piper is using an allegorical argument that does not translate to human relationships. It certainly has nothing to do with the way scripture presents the connection between idolatry and sex. Scripture does not make this connection as a gender-based connection, rather it is connected with adultery.

Idolatry, Adultery, and Covenant

Idolatry in scripture is compared to adultery, prostitution, and sexual immorality in general (Jeremiah 2; 11; Ezekiel 16:20-34; 23). The entire book of Hosea is dedicated to this metaphor. That’s because God’s relationship with Israel is a covenantal relationship, just as marriage is a covenant (Isaiah 42:5-8).

Israelites who worshiped other Gods were like adulterous spouses because they violated the covenant Israel made with God in to book of Exodus (see chapters 19-20). It’s a failure in fidelity either for lust or security, either because they are drawn in by the allure of the worship of other gods or the promise of reward from foreign powers and gods.

That covenant that Israel made was not for Israel only, but for the whole world, as Isaiah references in the verse above. Paul has no problem applying it to Rome, because all of us are God’s creation. Paul is calling all people to covenant with their creator and specifically calling Romans out as “without excuse” (vs. 20) and bound to their creator-God.

Idolatry is understood as a betrayal of covenant as a result of being controlled by lust and fear. A biblical understanding of the relationship between sex and idolatry is that failure in covenant with God leads to failure in covenant in human relationships.

Those relationships begin with spousal relationships, but they don’t end there. The Prophets are full of descriptions of the failures in fidelity to all those in society who most need it, and of selfishness and lust for gain run wild (see Isaiah 1:15-18; 46:6-7; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 10:1-25; Amos 5:10-12; Revelation 18:2-3).

This is exactly what the later half of Romans 1 is about (vs. 28-32). So what Paul is doing is not referencing the two chapters at the beginning of the Old Testament, but the overarching cautionary message of the Old Testament and especially the prophets. God made a covenant, people broke that covenant, which lead to broken covenants in their primary familial relationships, followed by broken covenants with all of society, especially the most vulnerable.

The core motivation is selfishness, not in terms of bizarre metaphors about loving yourself when you love someone of the same gender, but the basic human impulse towards self-gratification at the expense of someone with whom we have made a covenant.

Scripture often connects idolatry and adultery, but only occasionally includes references to same-sex sex when it does so. That’s because it’s not by nature a gender issue, but an issue of fidelity versus selfishness.

Same-sex sex makes a particularly stark example precisely because it was never part of a covenant in ancient Rome or Israel. To say that this verse is specifically denying covenantal same-sex relationships would be to degrade the core of Paul’s argument. Paul isn’t forbidding covenant for certain genders, he’s pointing out violations of covenant. That is the whole point of the idolatry and adultery motif in scripture, and it is certainly not something that would be lost on Paul’s Jewish audience.

Blame Shifting

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the non-affirming interpretation is the way in which it shifts blame. Rather than focusing on the ways in which humans objectify each other through sex, it puts the blame on gay marriage, as if Romans 1 is addressed to queer people and not straight people.

As with all minority groups, there is a long history of the LGBT community being scapegoated. You can see it today in calls to save marriage by denying it to same-sex couples. If I marry another woman someday, it poses no threat to any marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, it affirms that I see value in marriage.

The truth is that there are more straight divorces than there will ever be gay marriages, but no one wants to outlaw divorce. And there are more straight people in relationships who choose not to be married than there will ever be same-sex marriages, but again there is no desire to mandate marriage for straight people.

Traditional Christian churches have a tendency to focus on the small LGBT community. It’s funny how the things we do in our lives show up in our interpretation of scripture. Then those interpretations in turn justify further scapegoating of the LGBT community. Blaming the queer community is much easier than looking in the mirror, learning to be less selfish, and keeping your own covenants.

Romans 1:26-27 is often treated as if it applies only to the 5% or so of sexual minorities, not straight people. Yet the reality is that Paul was just talking about people. There are reasons why same-sex sexuality was a great example in Paul’s day for the failures of infidelity and selfishness of all people, and those will be discussed in the next blog post on Romans.

More to Come

I know this post doesn’t answer all the questions you might have about this passage, and I’d love to hear your questions in the comments. I’ll talk later about why same-sex sexuality is used to speak about lust. I’ll also talk about what this passage does mean for us today, and whether it permits same-sex relationships. All those questions and more need to be asked.

However, the foundational understanding espoused by those who do not affirm same-sex relationships is that this passage is about defying the creation of gender-based marriage in Genesis 1-2. That argument is not supported by the text, which is referencing the honor do to God who is the life-giver as opposed to Greek idolatry, and the desire to consume that can blind us to the truth, mar our connection to the creator, and bring selfishness into all our relationships.

Selfishness and broken relationships are not being singled out by Paul as a primary aspect of same-sex covenants and not straight covenants. The selfish desire to consume others is a human issue, not a gay issue. This verse is a challenge to all of us, not only to sexual minorities.

1 See Also, Gagnon, Robert. The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 289-297. Gagnon also argues that through referencing creation Paul is talking about the biological complimentary nature of male and female for procreation and pleasure. He further asserts that this is what Paul means by “nature.” These types of arguments are called ontological arguments, and will have to be left for a future post.

Tim Keller is someone I respect. Center Church taught me to think differently about cities, evangelism, and church planting. Prodigal God expanded my view of the gospel. But his post “The Bible and Same Sex Relationships” left much to be desired. In it, he reviewed Matthew Vines’s book God and the Gay Christian and Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation. For a full review of Tim Keller’s article, please see this post by Matthew Vines.

Key to theological view that affirms LGBT sexuality is the idea that what the scripture is speaking of in the few passages that address same-sex eroticism is something that is not directly relevant to today’s understanding of LGBT sexuality and same-sex relationships. I’ve presented information on why the Torah understands of same-sex eroticism as assault and exploitation. But some argue that extra-biblical literature reveals that ancient Greeks did have an understanding of sexual orientations.

Keller argued that there are references to mutual, committed same-sex relationships around the time the New Testament was written. Other often make the same claim. Yet I’m still waiting for a credible reference. Today I would like to address the specific reference Keller shared. It’s also come up from time to time in the comments of my blog. I’m drawing from and expanding on responses I’ve already made in the comment section.

 Tim Keller made the following claim in his post:

Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, for example, tells a story about how Zeus split the original human beings in half, creating both heterosexual and homosexual humans, each of which were seeking to be reunited to their “lost halves” — heterosexuals seeking the opposite sex and homosexuals the same sex. Whether Aristophanes believed this myth literally is not the point. It was an explanation of a phenomenon the ancients could definitely see — that some people are inherently attracted to the same sex rather than the opposite sex.

This section of Aristophanes’ speech was also quoted in the comments of my post “Are There ‘Homosexuals’ in the New Testament.”

[192b] they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children… [192c] the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another.

At first blush, this appears to be just the evidence non-affirming folks need to validate their claims. It may be the only one in Greek literature that seems to speak of same-sex commitments. But I invite you to look at the whole of Aristophanes speech, from which this is taken, and also to search and find all the references to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. You will quickly see what the scholars note, which is that Aristophanes is the comic relief, and his speech is a joke. This is even noted by non-affirming theologian Robert Gagnon, who nonetheless makes a misguided attempt to portray it as favorable to the non-affirming cause.

It’s easy to look up for yourself. Earlier in the symposium Aristophanes is asked to speak to the idea of love, which is being addressed by various philosophers whose speeches are than being discussed and critiqued. But Aristophanes can’t because he has the hiccups. He consults the doctor who tells him that he should sneeze to get rid of his hiccups. Later, after recovering, Aristophanes does make the speech he’s asked for, which is referred to as “charming” and is not discussed by the others present because it’s understood that the intention is not serious.

Here’s another section of Aristophanes’ speech. I hope you can see the humor:

In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

Even though humor doesn’t always translate from one culture to the next, the image of a round human with two of everything tumbling along in order to run fast is funny. How else would he run with legs facing in opposite directions? You can read all of the symposium and search for Aristophanes here:

When laypeople use this passage and perhaps haven’t looked at the full quotation, it’s excusable ignorance. But when someone of Keller’s reputation makes such a misapplication, it seems disingenuous. When something so serious and people’s mental health and the legitimacy of their families is at stake, I expect better. Queer people deserve better.

Taking this humorous account seriously leads to the wrong conclusion. Far from arguing for same-sex relationships in a serious way, this was a comic who was making a joke by being absurd. In other words, the thought of same-sex romance and commitment never crossed their minds.

Furthermore, Plato’s Symposium was written 400 years before the time of Paul’s writing. Drawing from this quotation the inference that ancient Greeks had any concept of same-sex committed romance, let alone a positive one, is like arguing that Don Quixote is a good description of the modern soldier.

Yet Symposium is not without relevance. There is a serious speech in this same document made by Hesiod in which he says:

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour.

Hesiod does not believe there is a way for an army to be made up of lovers and their loves, because armies are made up of men, and in ancient Greece they did not hold even the possibility that men could be lovers. Could they perform sexual acts together? Yes. But could they be lovers, in love and committed to each other as the context of Hesiod’s speech makes clear? No.

William J. Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a fantastic book for understanding how to interpret Biblical commands that will be especially satisfying for anyone who loves organization and precision. He outlines a precise rubric in a field of theological study that sometimes seems nebulous.

The hermeneutic he has developed and outlined in this book is a designed to reveal not only the intent of the scriptural teachings on various topics, but their movement. He argues that there is a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” in scripture. Though the individual texts may at times seem unjust, within the framework of the overall teachings of the Bible and in comparison to surrounding cultures a picture emerges of God moving people closer to the ultimate goal: redemption.

Three specific topics are explored in order to demonstrate how Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic works. They are of course the three groups in his title: slaves, women, and homosexuals. The title itself is an indication that Webb will not be sympathetic to LGBT people. The term “homosexuals” is almost exclusively used by those who have negative attitudes towards LGBT people or their sexuality.

On the topic of slaves and women Webb shows how the nation of Israel had greater permissiveness than the surrounding cultures, how there were moments of exception to the rules that devalued women and enslaved people, and how scripture would occasionally have “breakout” passages which undermined both slavery and the subjugation of women. He sees the topic of homosexuality, as he refers to it, as an unequivocal “no” in every instance, with Israel being more restrictive than surrounding cultures.

Reading though his book, it becomes quickly apparent that he spends very little time talking about same-sex sexuality in comparison to the other two topics. This underscores the reality that scripture speaks very little to the topic while there are scores of verses supporting slavery and the subjugation of women. Today, I imagine there would be a number of considerations brought up by James V. Brownson, Matthew Vines, and others which would demand Webb’s consideration. But since Webb’s book was published in 2001, those books hadn’t been written yet.

It’s also worth noting that Webb’s publisher was InterVarsity Press, the publishing wing of an organization that just last year (2016) decided to fire all people who believe that God affirms of same-sex relationships. In an environment with so little academic freedom, the conclusions are worth serious scrutiny.

I have the same problem with Webb’s work that I have with many books of non-affirming theology, they begin with modern questions about sexuality and read it back into the text to see if it affirms or condemns. The best approach to understanding scripture is to first be clear about what the text is talking about and why. Only then can we go about applying the meaning of that text to the modern situation. A flawed approach begins with the modern question instead of the ancient one.

Webb’s categories would also benefit from considering principles that can be drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in which Jesus described the Kingdom of God to which Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic is reaching. In his teachings, Jesus names love as the foundational concept scriptures. He reinterprets Old Testament laws in light of this principle.

Since Webb was addressing same-sex marriage, it would also have strengthened his book to look biblically at the concept of marriage. At some point, anyone who is engaged in the questions of the biblical morality of same-sex marriage must ask if such marriages are best informed by the many passages of scripture which speak at length to marriage, or the six which refer briefly to same-sex sexuality.

If we are to understand the biblical concept of marriage and the redemptive arc to which it is moving, would that arc be progressed or regressed by opening marriage up to couples of the same gender? That’s a question Webb never even feigned to ask.

Despite these limitations, I highly recommend this book. His underlying concepts are excellent, even if they aren’t always applied well to same-sex marriage. And it’s easy to see how these concepts can strengthen the case of those of us who believe in affirming theology.

Gender, Bible, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson

James V. Brownson is eminently qualified to write a book about. He is a professor of New Testament, has served as academic dean at Western Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is the first affirming book someone with serious theological inclinations should read.

Brownson’s study began when his son revealed that he was gay. Believing in the authority of scripture and describing himself as in the reform tradition, Brownson wanted to understand the will on God on the matter. As often happens, when someone he loved was suffering, he could no longer ignore the questions. He went about his study to understand the truth whatever it may be.

Brownson sets out to examine the underlying moral logic of prohibitions against same-sex sexuality, arguing that such a step is essential when applying a text to one culture that originated in an entirely different culture. Without such work, religion would be incapable of progress.

Traditionalists have claimed two different themes of underlying moral logic to justify the absolute prohibition on same-sex relationships. The first is a social argument about complementarianism, that men and women have distinct roles to play and same-sex relationships are forbidden because these roles cannot be maintained. The second is biological complementarianism where men and women are biologically fitted to each other and capable of procreation.

Brownson deftly dispatches Robert Gagnon’s claim of biological fittedness in Genesis 1 & 2, pointing out that the “one flesh” statement is used of kinship ties and not the complimentary nature of male and female genitalia. He does so by pointing both to the simple meaning of the Hebrew vocabulary and a close exegetical analysis of the text. “One flesh” is also a term that God uses of his relationship with his people, it is a bond of kinship and not biological sex.

A careful examination of biblical understandings of marriage, sex, lust, celibacy, and family strengthen Brownson’s analysis and his critique of complimentarianism. His explanation of gender-based concepts of shame and honor in the New Testament and surrounding culture was easily the clearest, most helpful explanation of gender difference in sociological concepts of honor and shame that I have ever read.

Brownson’s treatment of Romans 1:26-27 is the high point of this work. His pedigree as a New Testament scholar shines clearly in this section. The exegetical, hermeneutical, and cultural material he brings into his analysis is superb.

One thing that could be challenging for some readers is that instead of making a single interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, he gives several compelling options. I agree with this approach. The text refers to something specific that the original audience would have immediately known. But from our viewpoint, there are many compelling ways to understand this passage that don’t involve universal prohibitions on same-sex sexuality.

The one critique I have is Brownson’s analysis of the levitical law. As a New Testament scholar, it isn’t surprising that this was his weakest point. In my experience, most books of affirming theology tend to take the Old Testament law less seriously than I would like. This is a reflection of Christianity at large which lacks a coherent understanding of the purpose, structure, and application of Old Testament laws and instead tends to dismiss them.

The logic of the book not only challenges traditional interpretations, Brownson builds to an underlying moral logical for sex and marriage that is cogent and compelling. Rather than simply allowing for same-sex marriage for the sake of compassion, Brownson clarifies the biblical ethic for sexuality and marriage. He summarizes, “People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives” (p. 109). That’s the foundation of biblical sexuality and marriage.

Brownson speaks to the true heart of biblical marriage, which is expressed in commitment and a sexual ethic defined by the giving of one’s self to another in a reciprocal and self-sacrificial kinship bond. He argues that such a bond is compatible with same-sex marriage, though it is not compatible with the sexual liaisons described in the bible’s six passages addressing same-sex sexual activity.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality is a true achievement. Brownson’s critiques and theological contributions make his book a must read for anyone interested in this topic.