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 …
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 …
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, Elsa. 1991. 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.