Monday, August 15, 2011

Natural and Unnatural

For 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
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. I Corinthians 6:9-10
This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and 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 I Timothy 1:9-10
Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7
This is the third in a series of three commentaries on the seven biblical passages typically used to “prove” that the Bible condemns homosexuality.

As a Christian, I find the New Testament passages more troubling. We claim the whole Bible as our sacred story, but we also want to believe that Jesus brought a cosmic change in our thinking. Rightly or wrongly, I think we expect more enlightenment when we read the New Testament.

The passages from Hebrew scripture are more easily dismissed. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is clearly primitive. And no one takes Leviticus seriously.

Although Christians sometimes over-emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus’ teachings, he did bring a new perspective on many issues. He also deepened and expanded insights previously found in the Prophets. And he revealed great truths about human beings. But he did not change human nature.

Regardless of what we may believe about the inspiration of the biblical writers, we know that the actual words were written by human beings. The people who wrote the Bible (who put the letters and words on the page) were not perfect. And they were subject to the influences of the surrounding culture.

When Paul wrote his letters, he did not write them as sacred scripture. He was writing to specific people in specific places, offering advice and counsel intended for their situation. He did not know that two millennia later Christians would be studying those letters and reading them in worship as sacred texts. And the same is true for the unknown authors of the other New Testament epistles.

Of the four texts cited above, the last three can be dismissed rather easily. The last two, from the First letter to Timothy and from the Letter to Jude, were written fifty to one hundred years after Paul’s death, and do not carry the same authority as a letter from the Apostle. The Corinthians passage, like the passages from Timothy and Jude is written with ambiguous language which makes the meaning unclear. These texts are talking about some sort of inappropriate sexual behavior, but it is not clear what it is. What is certain, is that they are not talking about a loving, consensual, committed same sex relationship between two adults.

The Romans text is more difficult. We know with nearly one hundred percent certainty that it was written by Paul. That makes it hard to ignore if you believe as I do that Paul was the greatest Christian theologian, that all subsequent Christian theology is a footnote to Paul, and that his inspiration and brilliance were the driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

These two verses from Romans have probably done more to harm Christian attitudes toward homosexuality than anything else in the Bible. So what do we make of this?

First, Paul’s primary interest in this passage is not homosexuality, he is writing about what happens when we turn away from God. When we turn away from God, says Paul, we do “unnatural” things. The sexual relations which Paul describes are the result and not the cause or our turning away.

Second, his apparent reason for rejecting same sex relations is that they are “unnatural.” But our sense of what is “natural” is not fixed. In the nineteenth century, it was thought “unnatural” for blacks to be equal to whites. A hundred years ago it was “unnatural” for children with learning disabilities to be in public school. Fifty years ago a majority of Americans believed that marriage between blacks and whites was “unnatural.” Our sense of what is natural has changed. Is it unreasonable to believe that if Paul were alive now, he would see things differently?

Paul wrote about what he saw in the context of his own time and place. What may have been true in his time is not necessarily true in our time. One of the great biblical truths from Abraham and Sarah onward is that God always calls us into the future. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward for what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.”

1 comment:

  1. Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers...
    Wow, there are so many points to make here. Well, no, so many things to touch on, but really only one point to make: Which of us is without sin? I see no distinction made between the fornicator and the robber nor any of those mentioned in between. I personally have never been a male prostitute or a sodomite... but I have been a fornicator, a reviler and greedy. This is like a "pick your failing" list. I think we look at this and say "See, says right here that sodomites are just as bad as idolators!" But I think it also says that greedy people (and really, who has never been greedy?) are just as bad as thieves and prostitutes. This passage can be summed up again as "You ain't too good for a whoopin'".