by the Revd Marcus Green, Rector of Steeple Aston, author of ‘The Possibility of Difference‘ and member of the Living in Love and Faith Project.
I often tell a story about having tea with a friend of mine who is a bishop, a rather outspoken bishop. As we were sharing news he asked me if I was doing any writing and I started to explain stuff I was working through on Romans 1. I was excited about it (this was a few years ago) because I felt it seriously questioned the accepted narrative about St Paul’s attitude to gay people without letting go of anything St Paul wrote.
“Hmm,” replied my friend, with the kind of dismissive air that would make any self-respecting evangelical spit their tea out, “well I just think he’s wrong.”
LGBT people in the Church have been so pummelled with verses from St Paul over the years that it’s hardly surprising many line up behind my friend. But when that happens, we sell ourselves short and believe fake news, not Good News. St Paul doesn’t ‘hate gays’. Short of Jesus, he’s our best friend in the whole of the Scriptures.
To see how this can be, let’s look at Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and see how the texts used to belittle us actually do no such thing.
And then let’s broaden our vision and see something of St Paul’s wider understanding – which soon shows us that people who want to use any bit of the Bible to exclude the LGBT community can only do so if they rip out of their Bibles most everything St Paul ever wrote.
I’ve seen various conservative interpretations of this text over the years. And I’ve grown to admire many traditionalist interpreters of the Bible – for a viewpoint which sells itself as being ‘what we have always believed’, these guys are remarkably adept at re-inventing themselves.
One of my favourite conservative takes on Romans 1 focuses on the three times that St Paul says: “God gave them over…” – to sexual impurity (v24), to shameful lusts (v26), to a depraved mind (v.28). Three times God stresses the ‘evils’ of the gay lifestyle.
Of course, this is nonsense.
For two reasons. First, v.24 and v.28 have nothing to do with being gay – they apply to all sorts of folk. St Paul isn’t being picky. Two thirds of this clobber text are about straight people from the get go.
All straight people?
Well – that’s the second thing. Verses 22-23 and v25 make it very clear what St Paul’s actual focus is. He’s not writing about sex. He’s writing about sin.
Sin in St Paul (and indeed in the whole Bible) is primarily about idolatry not immorality. That is to say – it is about how people worship something or someone other than God, rather than how we misbehave. It is about the broken relationship between creation and Creator. The degrading of the body, the shameful lusts, the depraved minds are all evidence of the brokenness.
All straight people?
St Paul is writing about folk who live in brokenness. He’s not writing about all relationships, and he’s not saying that every person is wicked, evil, greedy, envious, murderous, deceitful, malicious, insolent, inventing evil, faithless, loveless and merciless. He is saying that people (and this means predominantly straight people in our understanding – though Paul wouldn’t know the term) who are broken from God are set on this depraved path.
So even if verses 26 & 27, the middle verses in this passage, are about gay people, in context they are about sinful, broken, idolatrous gay people. They are not a theology helping us to think about how to respond to all LGBT folk in church – any more than verses 28-32 are an understanding of all straight people in church.
We can look here and try to work out how to answer the question: “Can two Christian people of the same gender fall in love and marry?” But St Paul isn’t saying anything about this. He is saying that spiritual brokenness can change us and damage all of us – and I think that’s hard to argue.
I hope no-one wants to hide from that. But let’s also allow for a little humility. We need to remember not to presume that what we see in someone else is what might be our brokenness. It could just be someone else’s real life.
Because of Romans 2.
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else…because you do the same things.” St Paul points out we are all frail, and we all depend on God’s kindness. Why point at what we perceive to be someone else’s weakness? Don’t we ourselves depend on the riches of grace? Perhaps we might seek to understand rather than condemn?
A quick footnote, and then let’s move on.
People get very heated over the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (better – ‘against nature’) in Romans 1.26-27. “There you go – St Paul says being gay is unnatural.”
I was always taught to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And St Paul is a great help in this, because he uses the same words later in Romans.
In Romans 11.24 we again have ‘natural’ and ‘contrary to nature’ being used. It’s the same language. I know that in Romans 1 some people want to see ‘natural’ as a pure good and ‘against nature’ as an unparalleled bad – but in Romans 11, it is we Gentile Christians who are described by St Paul as being grafted into a cultivated olive tree ‘against nature’, a process which most of us rather depend on, and look at as being a positive thing.
It seems that God can act ‘against nature’ and in doing so produce something positive. ‘Nature’ in St Paul is not the final arbiter of good and evil. We do not worship nature – the creation; that’s rather the point of Romans 1! We worship the Creator of nature, who made the creation to be a blessing for us.
1 Corinthians 6.9-11
“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral no idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed…”
Thus the NIV. At least Romans 1 understood that LGBT had L as well as G, (even if they were idolaters, they were men and women) but here it’s all about the G. Women do often seem to disappear in the Bible text, and this is certainly one of those places. Apologies. Though, actually, I think truth also disappears fairly regularly in our sexuality debates and as we discuss these texts.
“Men who have sex with men” is a round up of two Greek words (malakoi and arsenokoitai) and – unfortunately – a wider Biblical search doesn’t help. St Paul is offering us terms that don’t come elsewhere. The NRSV translation offers ‘male prostitutes and sodomites’. The Authorised Version rendered this as ‘nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind’.
I’m not a fan of discussions on sexuality that take their arguments from the wider play of classical literature. St Paul, we are told, was a first century Jew and would therefore have had a strong dislike of same sex activity. Sort of, I want to reply, but a first century Jew (and a Pharisee at that) would also not have believed that the resurrection happened in the middle of history rather than at the very end, would not have allowed women to worship alongside men in the common gathering, and would not have seen Gentiles as fully equal human beings to Jews. And yet…
Malakoi is well translated by the Authorised Version as ‘effeminate’, but I think we hear the wrong connotation with that. In Roman culture (apologies – I’m using a reference that is beyond the Scriptures) an effeminate man could be one who was seeking the attention of women. Quite the reverse of our expectation. Also, the list of words doesn’t link ‘arsenokoitai’ with ‘malakoi’ – our presumptions do. If malakoi is a ‘ladies man’ it fits well with ‘adulterers’, the word before it. The effect would be – “the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who prey on women, men who prey on men, those who steal, those who are greedy…”
This is what some of the believers in Corinth were. Not gay – as indeed they aren’t being critiqued for being straight – but people displaying the evidences of broken relationship with God. People not loving their neighbour. People draining life from others in order to serve themselves. People who are abusing life to excess because they have not discovered Jesus’ gift of living life to the full. That’s what they were.
And then it is helpful to put these verses in context.
1 Corinthians 5 talks of problems in the fellowship to do with failures in heterosexual marriage. 1 Corinthians 7 talks of the gift of marriage in the community – and the gift of celibacy for some in that community. 1 Corinthians 6 is not a bracketed text in the middle with a theology for gay people. It’s part of this sweep, and its clear emphasis is on the sins of straight people.
To read letters from evangelical clergy quoting words taken out of this context as if LGBT people were St Paul’s acceptable reason for breaking churches reminds me that theological education is more important today than ever.
And then we need to stand back. Because St Paul didn’t fight our fight but he made sure it was already won.
These questions only exist because we have forgotten the bigger picture, they only get asked because we have mislaid the foundations of our faith. At the end of Galatians, having spent a letter condemning people who require Gentile Christians to outwardly practice Jewish ritual in order to be members of the Christian family, Paul says:
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Gal 6.15
In Ephesians this is explained further: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two (Jew and Gentile) thus making peace…Consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers.” Eph 2.15,19
St Paul had a huge, transformative and truly revolutionary vision of a new community – a new humanity – that broke every social and economic rule in the book. No slave or free, no male or female, no Jew or Gentile. Every believer becoming one in Christ. God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Children together by grace through faith.
Any attempt to make our current debates on sexuality a ‘bigger deal’ than the Early Church’s struggle with the question of the co-existence of Jewish and Gentile believers are self-involved nonsense. And St Paul answered those questions with an appeal to Christ’s creation of a new humanity and a resounding and repeated call to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The fulfilling of the Law is never in the tiny rules we fixate upon today and in a hundred years no-one will understand – it’s in following Jesus in love and fellowship and unity.
And yes, St Paul has a huge focus on sexual propriety. But for some today to think they have a hold on this which begins by making others less free, less human, less reflective of the relational love within the Godhead is again to miss the transforming gift of God’s new humanity.
Christianity ought never be mistaken for a heterosexual fertility cult – and St Paul’s call for abstinence is not aimed at gay folk but perhaps at some of the straight folk who get that emphasis wrong!
Does St Paul really hate gays? No.
He is the apostle of inclusion, who finds people that others disdain to touch and sees them for who they really are – fully equal children in the kingdom of God, disciples who change the world.
About the Author
Marcus Green studied at Merton College, Oxford before training for ordination at Wycliffe Hall (where his tutors and lecturers included RT France, Alister McGrath and NT Wright). After two curacies in the Church in Wales he spent a year at Cambridge; his research there (on worship in Matthew’s Gospel) was later published in popular form as part of the book Salvation’s Song. After returning to parochial ministry in Wales, Marcus continued to lecture on this research at colleges from Wycliffe Hall in Oxford to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
While working for the University of Leeds, Marcus wrote a long essay for the Pilling Commission; this began the process of writing which eventually produced his second book, The Possibility of Difference. Its strong biblically-based argument for inclusion was described by Bishop John Pritchard as ‘thoughtful, non-confrontational and significant’ and resulted in Marcus being asked to join the biblical working group of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project on Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage.
Marcus is now Rector of three rural parishes in the Diocese of Oxford, and continues to write, blog and speak on LGBT issues and the Bible.