Romans 1.26-7: The Bible 'Says' Homosexuality Is a Sin?

Jesus may not have spoken directly about homosexuality, but Paul did, we are assured. However, this passage is not about condemning homosexuality, but about condemning those who condemn others.
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"The bible says" is often the excuse employed by homophobic Christians who believe scripture requires a condemnation of homosexuality. The bible is a neutral object. It only "says" something when we act upon it. This is why we as actors must use this prop in a Shakespearean manner and not improv it as so many do today.

In the last several decades, the use of classical rhetoric as a tool to examine the Pauline epistles has become something of an institution among New Testament scholars. Because of this, we are able to wield scripture more effectively. Equally so, there is push back from fundamentalists and conservatives who would read scripture as if they were the ones writing it, divorced from its first century Greco-Roman-Hellenistic context. It is because of this insistence we read scripture as a modern how-to guide that those who use it are likely to do so not only in error but to the harm of others as well.

A case in point is the often (mis)used passage, Romans 1.18-32. It does not take long in a discussion on scripture and homosexuality for the more traditional defender to take this out of his or her arsenal, as if it is the "nuclear option." Jesus may not have spoken directly about homosexuality, but Paul did, we are assured. However, and I relish this role as the bearer of bad news, this passage is not about condemning homosexuality, but about condemning those who condemn others.

Stanley Stowers has pictured Paul's Epistle to the Romans as a protreptic letter. Simply, this is a letter an ancient teacher would send ahead of himself to gain support once he arrived. We can easily see this, since Paul indicates he had yet to meet the Roman congregation (1.8-15). How might one do this? Paul has to establish what his Gospel, or teaching, is in contrast to what they have heard. So, what does he do? He does the same thing we do today -- we use the words of our opponents and respond to them.

In literary rhetoric, this is called prosopopoeia. It includes the creation of a character in the work to whom you, if you were writing the letter, could dialogue with. To clue the reader into this, rhetoricians established certain literary. Euripides used gar, a Greek word often translated as "for" in our English. The translators of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint, or LXX) used gar to signify change of speaker as find twice in Job and over forty times in Isaiah. Would we expect Paul, a highly educated man who knew both Greco-Roman rhetoric and the Septuagint, to not have used rhetoric? If he did, we'd also expect him to use the established cues so that his readers could detect it.

As I have blogged before, Paul's use of prosopopoeia begins with 1.16-7. This is his objective statement. Everything the Apostles believes about Jesus Christ is summed up in these few words... "I am not ashamed of the Gospel... it has the power to save." Then, his opponent speaks. "Gar (for)... the wrath of God..." and goes on from there to counter that the Gentiles cannot be saved by Israel's Messiah because they are idol worships and do strange things with their bodies (1.18-32). This is a common belief among many Second Temple Jewish exegetes -- the Gentiles simply could not be saved.

Remember, this is not a duel between Jews and Gentiles about who are the best Christians, but a refrain among Jews in dialogue with one another about the role of Gentiles in the messianic age. We know that the tradition of Gentiles looked on as second-class citizens exist well into the second century when Acts was written. What we see in Romans is a conflict about group identify. This is made very clear at the end of Romans 2 when Paul loudly proclaims against his opponent that the Jew is not the one who is born a Jew (outside) but who became a Jew (inside) -- thus, Gentiles could be saved.

Not only does this passage not teach homosexuality is a sin, but it is more about idol worship and other forms of religious rituals used as examples of how awful the Gentiles are than love shared between two people of the same gender. To add to this non-homosexual issue is Paul's rather harsh words for those who see Romans 1.18-32 as a valid "truth.

In Romans 2.1, Paul answers the objections from the previous passage that Gentiles were too awful to save with the words "You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things (NLT)."

What is Paul's intent here? He does not say, "Sure, gays are bad but God can still save them." Instead, he goes on for several chapters showing all are equally lost before God, and all are redeemed. And yes, all does mean all (Romans 5). This passage is not about homosexuality, at least not in the way conservative exegetes usually pretend that it is, but about social prejudices pushing away the kingdom of God.

In the end, no amount of scholarship will sway the majority of those who view homosexuality through the lens of Victorian morality. Scholarship has yet to change the minds of Young Earth Creationists and others who hold to untenable tenants, after all. In the end, we are called to love every one and condemn no one as Paul tells us, even -- especially -- those who would misuse scripture and abuse others to their own ends.

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