St. Paul: Missing the Forest for the Trees

St. Paul - by El Greco

St. Paul - by El Greco

Now we look at homosexuality in the New Testament. There are no statements concerning homosexuality that come directly from Jesus of Nazareth, so we have to look to the Pauline Letters for guidance. There are three letters where the subject is mentioned (in chronoogical order): 1 Corinthians, Romans, and 1 Timothy. So let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians first …

I Corinthians

Written in 53-56 CE, the first letter to the Corinthians was addressed to a community of house-churches in the Greek city of Corinth. The congregations of these little churches were mostly Gentile (that is, converted Greek Pagans). Corinth was a flourishing city, occupying both key military and commercial niches in the region, and benefitted from many Roman building projects at the beginning of the century. The city had a small class of upwardly-mobile merchants, but the majority of the city-dwellers still lived hand-to-mouth as day-laborers or artisans (Ft. 1).

Paul – writing from the city of Ephesus – states that his letter was prompted by reports of internal conflicts in the congregation from some of its members: “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters” (1:11).  New apostles had been arriving in Corinth, innovating on Paul’s teaching of the Gospel and cultivating their own following, leading to factions among the house-church-goers.  There also appeared to have been increased tolerance of sexual immorality and cliquish behavior from “a group of status-conscious, would-be patrons, who offered both their nominal allegiance to the Gospel of Christ and substantial financial support to the Corinthian Christians, in order to acquire their own loyal clients and enhance their social status” (Ft. 2).  So Paul’s primary concerns in this letter were A) that his congregation was being divided against itself and B) that his teachings were being compromised and lost.

The passage pertaining to homosexuality occurs in the middle of a discourse on … lawsuits.  In Chapter 6, Paul castigates his congregants for taking their disputes against each other to (pagan) Greek courts instead of working them out among themselves within the church.  Sounds like good advice for today! 

So Paul tries to reassure his congregants that there is no need to resort to the courts when the people who have wronged them will ultimately be dealt with by God: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God!  Do not be deceived!  Fornicators, idolators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9-10).  Note that sodomy occurs as only one example in a long list of sins that includes greed, drunkenness and reviling (hate speech). 

Sodomy and male prostitution were very different things in the ancient world than what we understand today.  In Greco-Roman society, all relationships were hierarchical – there had to be a “superior” and an “inferior” partner, with the “superior” in charge – or there would be no order in the relationship.  Households were modeled on the structure of the Empire – with the Master/husband as the head, and the wife, children and slaves underneath him.  Consequently, when Paul spoke of sodomy and male prostitution, he was not talking about sexual activity between freely consenting adults: “Same-sex intercourse in the Hellenistic world … often involved boys young enough that we would call them children, and accounts of it regularly emphasize how it asserted the power of one partner over another, rather than equality in love” (Ft. 3).  In other words, what Paul was condemning was, mostly likely, childhood sexual abuse – which is not about sex between two loving, freely consenting adults. 

Nonetheless, the main point of the chapter is: Do not take each other to court when you can work your problems out among yourselves.  The list of sins catalogued by Paul are a set of examples – a footnote – to the main point.  To focus on the sexual sins in this particular footnote is to miss the forest for the trees.  Yes, Paul was opposed to sexual sins; however, the main point of the chapter (and the letter as a whole) is that believers should not divide themselves into quarrelling factions – obsessed with status and prestige – ultimately dragging each other into court.  I suspect our world would look quite different if we condemned frivolous lawsuits as vigorously as we condemned sexual sins.


Paul’s letter to the Romans, circa 55-58 CE, was written just after the Jewish-Christian leaders of the Roman house-churches has returned from exile after the death of Emperor Claudius, who had expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 CE.  When the Jewish-Christian leaders returned, they found that the Roman house-churches had changed greatly in their absence, and now had Gentile (former Pagan) leaders at the helm (Ft. 4).  Needless to say, this led to a great deal of tension between the returning Jewish-Christian leaders and the current Gentile ones, of which Paul would have been acutely aware as he wrote to them. 

The letter to the Romans covers a wide expanse of ground, but some of the main themes are: 1) The inherent guilt of all humanity; 2) The impossibility of earning righteousness through observance of religious law; 3) The justification of humanity (the overlooking of our sins) by God’s grace alone; 4) The relationship of Adam (the bringer of sin and death) to Jesus Christ (the bringer of new life); and 5) The extension of salvation to all – both Jew and Gentile – through Jesus Christ.

As was the pattern in 1 Corinthians, Paul likes to make his initial main point, then follow it with a very long list of examples to illustrate that point.  In the first chapter of Romans, Paul begins the main part of his letter with a meditation on the history of guilt in humanity.  For Paul, the beginning of humanity’s sinfulness was its fall into idolatry, instead of honoring the God of Creation: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the flory of the immortal God for images resermling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (1:22-23).  It might be worth contemplating what images of particular people or things we currently worship.  Football players?  Popular singers?  Cars?  iPhones and BlackBerries?  For Paul, this idolatry was the beginning of the end: “Therefore God have them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading 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.” 

Then, we have the long list of examples of impurity and degradation, including “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” (1:26-27).  This passage is probably the one of the very few in the Bible that unambiguously condemns both homosexuality and Lesbianism, as we currently know them. 

However, once again, it is critical to look at the entire context of the letter, and not to miss the forest for the trees.  First, the above passage is mentioned just before a very long list of sins to follow idolatry, including: “envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness … gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  They know God’s decree, that those who practice such thing deserve to die …” (1:29-32). So homosexuality and Lesbianism are on equal footing with gossip, slander, insolence, foolishness and heartlessness.  Again, I believe our society would look very different if the latter were condemned as vigorously as the former.

Second, focusing on the individual sins misses the point of the chapter, which is that the root of all sins is idolatry: That is, mistaking something that it not God for God.  How many things that are not, in themselves, God do we mistake for God today?  The flag?  The Bible?  Our particular ideas about God?  And how do these beliefs spawn acts that end up harming the people around us instead of cherishing them in unconditional love?

Third, using the passage above to condemn LGBT people is to miss several main points of the entire letter, namely:

  • No human being can claim to be righteous before God based on obedience to religious law, “for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20); and
  • The love of God is available to all who call on God: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on [God]” (10:12).

So, with that said, let us move onward to 1 Timothy …

1 Timothy

 The first letter of Paul to his disciple Timothy was, most likely, not written by Paul: “A clear majority of scholars today consider the Pastorals [1 Tim, 2 Tim and Titus] as a whole to be pseudonymous, which is to say, written by one or more Paulinists who adapted some of Paul’s ideas and wrote in his name (it was a common practice in the ancient world to honor – but adapt – the idea of an earlier writer)” (Ft. 5).  The Pastoral letters were public in scope, and were the earliest approximation of a “manual of church order” in the early church – although the growing network of house-churches still did not have a clear hierarchy at that point (Ft. 6).

We have a similar pattern here as with 1 Cor 6 and Rom 1: A general injunction/admonition, illustrated by a long list of sins.  In this instance, the injunction is against teachers of “different doctrine” than that which Paul taught, who “occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith” (1:3-4).  The reference to myths and speculations likely refers to Gnostic teachers of that era, who combined the Gospel of Jesus Christ with teachings that he was not human at all, but rather a “God-man” who only appeared human (and who thus only appeared to suffer on the cross).  Gnostic teachers proposed to teach their students the secret knowledge (gnosis) that would enable them to become divine, like Jesus Christ.  This is similar to the type of teaching that was dividing the community at Corinth.  The Pauline author of 1 Tim criticizes these teachers for turning to “meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions” (1:6-7). 

The Pauline author then goes into the correct uses of the (religious) law: “The law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and the disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which [God] entrusted to me” (1:9-11). 

Again, to focus on sodomy (in this instance, most likely referring to child sexual abuse, rather than a loving same-sex relationship between consenting adults) is to miss the point.  The point of the passage is that religious law should be used to preserve community integrity, not for some to parade their knowledge of the law above others and use it to enhance their status.  Also, as with 1 Cor and Romans, the list places liars and perjurers on equal footing with sodomites – a very grave thought for politicians who would like to deceive the public in order to finance wars that will provide lucrative government contracts for their donors …

A Final Word on Paul

The overall thrust of all these three letters is A) preservation of the integrity of the community against factionalism and internecine wrangling and B) the acknowledgement that no human being is without sin before God, and is only justified through God’s all-inclusive love and grace.  To select the passages on homosexuality and use them to oppress persons of LGBT status is to miss the forest for the trees.  It is to take a fragment of a footnote and turn it into the exclusive focus of the letters.  There are assumptions that the Pauline letters make that we do not (and, I believe, should not) share today, for example:

  • Slavery is an acceptable institution: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (1 Pet 2:18); and
  • Women should behave as subordinates: “As in all churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (1 Cor 14:33-34).

There are very few mainline, modern churches who would accept these teachings as literally true without very carefully examining their historical context and assessing whether the teaching is appropriate for a modern society.  To select any of these teachings out of context is to miss the ultimately liberating thrust of Paul’s theology, beautifully summed up in Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  May we stop missing the forest for the trees, and make it so.



1. Tamez, Elsa1991.  The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective.   Trans. Sharon H. Ringe.  Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.  pp. 70.

2. Horsley, Richard A. and Neil Asher Silberman.  1997.  The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.  pp. 172-173.

3.  Placher, William C.  2002.  “Struggling with Scripture.”  In Struggling with Scripture.  Walter Brueggeman, Wiliam C. Placher and Brian K. Blount, authors.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.  pp. 43.

4.  Gaventa, Beverly Roberts.  1998.  “Romans.”  Women’s Bible Commentary.  Expanded Ed. with Apocrypha.  Ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.  pp. 405.

5.  Martin, Clarice J.  2007.  “1-2 Timothy, Titus.”  True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary.   Ed. Brian K. Blount, et al.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.  pp. 410.

6. Martin, op. cit., pp.411.

13 thoughts on “St. Paul: Missing the Forest for the Trees

  1. In Biblical times, there were probably very few known, loving same-sex relationships. So to say that Paul wasn’t speaking out against them is almost unnecessary. What was there – of that nature – to speak out against? All of the same sex relationships that were known at that time were most likely abusive or based on power or hedonistic sex for the sake of a greater thrill. I doubt he ever went to the home of a genuine same sex couple, had dinner with them and spent the night on their couch, and then said, “Oh, by the way – ya’ll shouldn’t be living this lifestyle. It goes against nature and God.”

    I find it odd the things they were so tolerant of back then that totally speak of inhumanity today. You mentioned 2 things: slavery and subjugation of women. But there were many others as well: multiple wives, the fact that men were not frowned upon for having sex with their slaves – which was out of wedlock sex and supposedly a sin.

    It seems to me that many of the laws were written for a genuine purpose that i can understand: the laws against eating certain foods helped keep folks from getting sick. The laws against premarital/extramarital sex should’ve helped keep women from falling into poverty, prostitution, etc, because of pregancies and disease. Some laws seem to be just for the sake of making a law (like the laws about hair length, etc) but as you say, Paul was trying to help form a community of people out of a mess, so they needed structure and rules.

    But what i find interesting is how so many of the no-longer-relevant rules have just faded away to nothing, but the rules about sex are still strong, especially about anything other than married, hetero sex. I see that as the desire of the Dominant Male of society to keep control of all the sex and spread guilt and negativity about anything that involves sex that DOESN”T involve them.

    • Hi Sienna!
      Just a quick historical note – sex with slaves (at least for married men) was not considered adultery or fornication, because slaves were considered property, thus there to be dealt with as the Master saw fit. Sexual concubinage was a common practice during Biblical times. Some of the more famous patriarchs who had both multiple wives and concubines were Jacob/Israel, King David and King Solomon (who had hundreds).

      You bring up a very interesting question about why the rules concerning sex seem to stick more than other outdated, inappropriate rules. I think (this is only an opinion) that – in addition to the control factor – there is also the money factor. Beating the drum about the crisis of “family values” and the impending “homosexual agenda” has always been an excellent way for some far-right mega-churches to fill their coffers. It’s also an excellent way to get out the conservative vote, which is why Karl Rove pushed anti-Gay ballot initiatives in several key swing states during the Bush election. There’s nothing like a common scapegoat to bring out the masses and their pocketbooks! A very sad comment on the times …

      Thanks again for supporting the blog and keep coming back!

  2. You will probably be totally sick of me before long. However, i’m really enjoying your blog and our back and forths.

    You’ve hit on one of the key things that always sends me reeling when i try to get on board with the whole God-inspired or Sent Straight from God mentality when viewing the Bible.

    sex with slaves (at least for married men) was not considered adultery or fornication, because slaves were considered property,

    So, what does this mean? Were they not considered people? Did they have souls or not?

    If Paul – and Jesus before him – were truly on a mission to right the wrongs of the world and change man from the inside out, then why did they totally ignore such an inhumane practice going on all around them? Why would they get up in arms about certain things and yet let this other thing go unquestioned or challenged?

    It seems to me that – if they were sent/inspired/possessed by a higher and all-knowing power, then they would’ve been able to look beyond what was considered ok during that time and see the unjustness of the way massive numbers of real live human beings were being treated. They taught that the body was the temple of God, etc, but what about those bodies of the slaves? How could they just overlook what was being done to them as irrelevant?

    When i look at the things that folks get all wound up about – like homosexuality – vs the things that the Bible and society are ok with, or have been ok with (slavery and bigotry) up until very recent times, it just takes a lot of the power out of the message for me.

    There are a few very short lessons in the Bible that i take to heart:

    The Ten Commandments

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Love your neighbor as yourself

    Once you get very far away from these ideals, i have a hard time buying into much that is said.

    I’m enjoying our discussion and your blog very much, and i am not closing my mind to anything. Carry on! I’ll be here! 🙂

    • Thanks, Sienna!

      This is great! You’re bringing up all the “hard questions” that I think a lot of people (including churchgoers) think about but aren’t always comfortable asking – good job!

      Your questions regarding the position of Paul and Jesus on slavery bring up a lot of very important subjects, such as 1) The Bible as Infallible Canon vs. Inspired Text; 2) God’s prophets as infallible saints vs. inspired people; and 3) God, God’s Self, as Omnicient/Omnipresent vs. Ineffable, Inscrutable Partner and Co-Creator. I think these deserve a whole post unto themselves, so I’m going to do a little thinking, a little research and come up with a post on these …

      Thanks for the inspiration and keep on questioning!

  3. Back to sex for a bit:

    Sodomy = rape, child abuse, violence, all i believe we can agree are bad things. I agree with you that when sodomy is mentioned, it’s most likely a cry out against those acts, not against a loving act of sex between two men.

    Fornicators were also condemned as bad news because they were having m/f sex outside the boundaries set for it, which was marriage.

    Who defines what marriage is? The church? The government?

    The Bible speaks vehemently against divorce, but today’s society has managed to conveniently get totally over that, for many good reasons. We are no longer willing to spend a miserable life paying for the mistakes we made when we were young, stupid, confused, weak, or whatever. Plus, i think we’ve finally come to realize that as we age, we change, and sometimes we grow apart whether we want to or not. Divorce is no longer a stigma, because if it was, then half the population would be running around in Hair shirts with big D’s on the front, and the rest of us would be terrified to get married because of the potential for misery or disaster or both. The end result would be either: a giant decrease in familes, because folks would be scared to get married and procreate, plus a giant increase in fatherless kids because folks would have stupid sex and make babies outside of wedlock.

    Not that there is anything wrong with a child being born outside the bounds of marriage, but i feel like – in this scenario – it would lead to a much more chaotic society.

    My point is, we’ve gotten around almost every HETEROSEXUAL sexual taboo because we had to in order for society to deal with itself.

    Homosexuality is the only taboo left that isn’t actually a recognizable sin – such as pedophilia or rape – that all the good divorced het Christians who are now living/sleeping with their new bf/gf can point their finger at and look down on.

    And in the Christian world that thrives in this country, it seems that it’s really important to have someone to look down on, because that means you aren’t down there on the bottom yourself. 🙂

  4. to clarify – when i said recognizable sin,

    Homosexuality is the only taboo left that isn’t actually a recognizable sin

    i meant a sin that actually does harm to other people. sodomites harmed other people. homosexuals – just by being gay or lesbian – do not pose any visible threat to society.

    IMO – back in Biblical times, however, the whole purpose of sex seemed more about procreation and power than love and joy, samuel not withstanding. that being said, the whole issue of gay/lesbian sex would come under fire because it does nothing to procreate the species and is therefore not serving any true purpose.

  5. IMO – back in Biblical times, however, the whole purpose of sex seemed more about procreation and power than love and joy, samuel not withstanding.

    One of the quickest and easiest ways to grow a fledgling religion is to biologically create adherents. I always thought that was one of the reasons for the admonitions against gay sex- it would not create followers.

    • Hmmm. That looks like another potential post topic: “The Role of Sex in Judeo-Christian Religion” … I don’t know if I can keep up with you guys! 🙂

    • Wow – you’re right, that is a really powerful story. And there are probably thousands more like it from “Red-state” America.

      The reviewer’s point about the Christian extremists’ misuse of the Bible is one of the key reasons I started this blog. While I am not technically Christian (I’m a Unitarian Universalist who’s just really into the Bible and Jesus), I think it is going to be absolutely critical over the next decade for thinking people to reclaim the Bible, dispel the damaging, violence-inciting myths that have been cultivated around it, and put it to its proper use – as inspiration for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcastes, and all those spat upon by society to realize that they are unconditionally loved by a Higher Power (whatever you want to call it), and of that Power’s clarion call to justice. I really like the forum of the Internet, because it’s a great way to reach people that otherwise would not be at all attracted to a conventional church. Thanks, and keep coming back!

  6. That’s my deal – i just can’t deal with all the ritual and stuff that comes with a regular, conventional church. I started going to a really nice little methodist church just down the road from my house a few years ago, similar, only a little bigger, than the ones i grew up in. I really wanted to get back into it because my parents and grandparents were so into it, but the more i dug in, the more i couldn’t buy into it. I did a Bible study called Disciple Bible Study and it just really pushed me to the edge. I couldn’t get my mind to accept the things i was supposed to believe and even like and respect. I finished the class but it pretty much did me in for church. I still fix the senior lunch for them on the first thursday of each month and enjoy that, and i wish that i could feel more of what they feel, but based on the things i’ve learned, i just struggle. i’m enjoying seeing a new take on things here. thanks so much. 🙂

  7. FYI – There is a new movement in both the Protestant and Catholic churches called the “Emerging Church” movement. The idea is that church isn’t something you go to, so much as it is something you do – wherever, whenever. In coffee shops, in peoples’ houses, in cyber-space, wherever people are the most comfortable talking and asking the “hard questions” they really need answers for. I’m actually going to be taking a class on the “Emerging Church” in late June, which I will probably end up posting on, so stay tuned! But glad to hear this is a good forum for you – I may have found my calling as a “cyber-pastor”!

  8. Pingback: My Big, Gay Sermon « Under the Rose

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