Having taken a bit of a detour, let’s return to Romans 1.
In Romans, Paul lays out
the dire situation of all humanity in bondage to Sin. Both Jews and Gentiles
are caught in that bondage. In Chapter 1, he focuses his attention on Gentiles.
From a Jewish perspective, Gentiles are, by definition, guilty of idolatry.
Though Paul asserts that there is sufficient evidence in creation for them to
know better, they neither honor God as God nor give thanks to him (1:21).
Instead, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a
mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:23).
Of course, in the ancient
world literal idolatry was pervasive. There were statues and images of gods of all sorts everywhere. But, idolatry is more than worshiping images
resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. We
can exchange the glory of the immortal God for almost anything: Family,
money/Mammon, Nation/Flag/Patriotism, Political Ideology, Fame/Reputation, Violence, Vengeance, Race, Security, Pleasure, Sex, the Mirror,
etc. When we give such things our ultimate allegiance and allow them to shape our imagination we make gods of them. And that distorts our thinking and disorients us morally.
When people exchange the
worship of God for the things God created, they lose moral perspective and self-control (see Wisdom 12:23-13:10 and 14:9-31). They become “futile in their
thinking, and their senseless minds are darkened” (Romans 1:21). They are thus subject
to “every kind of wickedness” (Romans 1:29).
The sexual licentiousness
Jews attributed to Gentiles was part of this. And it was not hard in the
Greco-Roman world to see a connection between idolatry and sexual
licentiousness. Images of the phallus were ubiquitous (here). And all sorts of
sexual goings-on were common in and around pagan temples (see the first comment
below taken from “But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1 by James Allison). The evidence confirming
that Gentiles were sexually out of control was everywhere.
Paul points to same-sex
sexual encounters as a particular example of this:
this reason 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 and received in their own persons the due
penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)
As we saw in the last post, such behavior was evidence of the out of control behavior that results from idolatry. Same-sex intercourse was seen as one extreme example of licentiousness.
But, let’s be clear. Paul asserts
that idolatry leads to "every kind of
since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased
mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of
wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit,
craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty,
boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless,
heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31)
Verses 26-31 should be read as a whole. The attitudes and behaviors Paul lists are all similar in his mind.
So, how might this passage
of Holy Scripture apply to us today?
Though literal idolatry
is rare in our context, idolatry (as in the examples in the second paragraph
above) is no less pervasive here and now than it was there and then. It is just
more subtle. Partly because it is more subtle it is easier to fall into and because it is less obvious we can fool ourselves into thinking we are not guilty. But,
it still can lead us to accept and do things that are contrary to the way of
Jesus and fill us with every kind of wickedness. It is not the point of this
series, but I think Christians would do well to take more seriously the
temptation of idolatry and the possibility that we are more idolatrous than we
would like to think.
It is also a reminder that in the New Testament and the early Church, self-control was understood as a fundamental mark of faithfulness to the Christian way of life (see, Neglected Fruit of the Spirit). That is about as counter-cultural and scandalous as it gets in a society such as ours with its self-indulgent, consumerist pursuit of more and more money and stuff, more comfort, and more pleasure.
More specifically, what
does this passage teach us about the phenomena of same-sex sexual attraction?
First, allow me to repeat
again that every reader of scripture reads with a perspective that includes
rules, conscious or unconscious, which determine how they interpret what they
read. I laid out some of my basic approach to interpreting scripture here: Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture. Among other things, I pointed out that according
to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, the Pontifical Biblical
Commission, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid
certain sorts of what the authorities call ‘actualization’ of the texts, by
which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to
modern realities. One does not have to be Roman Catholic to find this a valuable guide to interpretation:
to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction
contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of
the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the
part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary... to avoid
absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could
provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people”. (The
Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV.3)
While there are plausible
– maybe even probable – interpretations of scripture “contrary to evangelical
justice and charity,” i.e., that endorse slavery, racism, anti-semitism, sexism, etc.,
they are to be avoided. Interpretations that reflect and reinforce justice and
charity are more faithful to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that
this principle makes space for asking whether or not we should be wary of
reading biblical texts about homosexuality as referring in a straightforward
way to what we are talking about now.
I believe that, given the
logic of Romans 1, we should indeed be wary of 'actualization' of the text as
referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. In the previous two posts in the series we saw
the importance of self-control for Paul and his contemporaries and the common
understanding that homosexual behavior was a matter of out of control sexual
desire. Is the reality Paul is talking about necessarily the same thing we are
talking about regarding same-sex relationships in our context?
How should we now understand gay
and lesbian Christians who are no more idolatrous than the rest of us and give
every evidence of faithfully worshiping God in Christ and honoring God as God and
giving thanks to him? And who love God and neighbor? And demonstrate self-control
and self-denying discipline in their desire to follow Jesus and be formed in his
image? Who are not dominated by passions and who build up the body of Christ? And
who resist the evils listed in Romans 1:28-31 and elsewhere? And give testimony
to their experience of same-sex attraction being different from that described
in Romans 1 and elsewhere? And that it is not a matter of their choosing or lack of self-control, but an ingrained part of their personal identity?
It doesn’t work to say
that in spite of all that, their same-sex attraction is itself idolatrous. That
is not the logic of Paul’s argument. His argument is that idolatry leads to
loss of perspective and self-control which leads to out of control sexual
behavior among other things. But, what if gays and lesbians demonstrate that they are no more out
of control than anyone else and that their same-sex attraction is an inherent part
Another common approach is
to argue that indelible same-sex attraction is a product of the brokenness
resulting from the Fall. But, that also does not fit Paul’s logic. For Paul, the out of control sinful behavior he is talking about is the result of the prior
decision to turn from the glory of God and worship something less than God. As
we have seen, the assumption was that homosexual behavior was just such out of control behavior. As such, it was an extreme example of fornication to which all are similarly tempted. We know that gays and lesbians, like heterosexuals, can choose to be licentious, promiscuous, and adulterous. But, given the apparently fixed nature of most same-sex attraction, it is different from those. It is not a consequence of choosing idolatry over honoring God. And gays and lesbians, like heterosexuals, can and do also demonstrate self-control and sacrificial faithfulness.
Gay and lesbian Christians are not essentially idolatrous. If they honor God and give him
thanks and demonstrate self-control that leads to love and the building up of
the congregation, then it is hard to see how what Paul is writing against in Romans 1 actually applies to Christians who are gay or lesbian.
The out of control sexual behavior Paul is talking about is not what we
are talking about given how we understand the phenomena of same-sex attraction. It is not what we are talking about when we talk about committed, self-sacrificial same-gender
unions that reflect all the disciplines and commitments of traditional
marriage. I suggest that that opens space for the Church to rethink its teaching on the matter.
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Romans 1 (iv) Idolatry,
self-control, and same-sex sex