To review the text, click here -- Romans 1:18-32.
I'm relying on two main sources to look at the different claims about this Bible passage. On the side that's arguing for the ELCA's decision in August, I'm tapping into Mel White's document, What the Bible Says -- and Doesn't Say -- about Homosexuality. I found this on the Soulforce website many years ago. Mel digs into the main texts in the Bible that mention homosexuality and gives a detailed interpretation of why each one does not apply to the current debate. To his credit, in his own words Mel wants to "take the Bible seriously." He is seminary educated and has studied the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. On the side that argues against the ELCA's August vote, I'm leaning on Robert Gagnon who teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and has written extensively about the Bible and issues of homosexuality. Gagnon has lots of articles on his website as well, but I'm using his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice.
As you read these arguments, I ask that you think carefully about them. Don't give in to sloppy thinking where your assumptions predetermine your outcome. The different sides in this debate come with very different assumptions about the Bible and the authority and validity it has. Mel White begins reviewing the biblical passages on homosexuality with this statement: "I'm certain that you don't agree with the Bible on a lot of its teaching about sex. And you shouldn't ... Often, the Holy Spirit uses science to teach us why those ancient commands no longer apply to our modern times." Robert Gagnon comes with a very different set of assumptions. "First, there is clear, strong, and credible evidence that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin. Second, there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments, derived from either general principles of biblical interpretation or contemporary scientific knowledge and experience, for overriding the Bible's authority on this matter."
So we have three questions, three that I find very helpful any time I deal with a Bible passage. The first is, what does this text say? Second, what does it mean? Third, how does it apply?
In dealing with Romans 1:18-32, Mel White says, "For our discussion, this is the most controversial Biblical passage of them all." He then states that "This verse appears to be clear. Paul sees women having sex with women and men having sex with men, and he condemns that practice." Even Mel White says that this is the plain sense of this passage. This would be an answer to the question, "What does this text say?"
Before moving on, let's hasten to add that Paul mentions many other sins alongside homosexual activity. He includes not just homosexual activity but also "greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip." The list goes on. If you read the passage carefully, Paul is making an argument that all human beings have turned away from God. As they have turned to worship other things rather than acknowledging God, God has turned them over to their sinful impulses. All these observed sins -- even down to disobedience to parents, another item on Paul's list -- are the natural consequence of a self-orientation rather than a God-orientation. Paul concludes this chapter by saying, "They know God's justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too." (NOTE: I want to be absolutely clear that I totally reject this passage as an excuse for violence against homosexual persons! Such a reading is nothing less than hateful and irresponsible. Read it again and you will find that if you use this passage as an excuse to hate or excuse violence toward homosexuals, you deserve to die yourself. Don't go there. Paul is making an argument for a theological understanding of sin here, not a plea for vigilante violence.)
So this passage is saying that turning away from God -- which we all do in some form -- results in sinful behavior that can be observed, and if we engage in these behaviors, God will allow us to go our own way and rebel against him. So though God doesn't want me to be greedy, I am in fact greedy and sometimes I behave that way. This is a sign of my imperfect relationship with God, and when I give in to my greedy impulses, God allows me to go that way and suffer the consequences.
This brings up lots of questions, but first let's move on to the question, "What does this mean?"
Mel White's argument is that this passage refers not to homosexuality in general but rather to the sexual orgies -- heterosexual and homosexual -- that were practiced in the pagan temples of Paul's day. Looking at these orgies, Mel says, Paul condemns these sexual actions as idol worship. Mel then answers our third question, "How does this apply?" by saying that "it is unreasonable (and unjust) to compare our love for each other to the rituals of these priests and priestesses that pranced around the statues of Aphrodite and Diana. Once again, we feel certain that this passage says a lot about God and nothing about homosexuality as we understand it."
Is Mel White correct, that this passage refers only to those caught up in the orgiastic practices of idol worship, not to people in general, and certainly not to homosexual practice as we know it today?
Robert Gagnon takes a very different tack on Romans 1. Looking at the structure of the argument and the language used, he makes the argument that Paul is appealing to the story of creation in Genesis 1-3. Just as one can look around at the created order and see evidence for the existence of God, so one can look at the physical structure of male and female bodies and see evidence that they are meant to be complementary -- both for pleasure and for procreation. Gagnon says that for Paul, the absurdity of worshipping the creation and idols made in the shape of created things is similar to the absurdity of males having intercourse with males or females having intercourse with females. It is plainly outside God's created intention. Or, as Gagnon puts it, "Idolatry and homosexual behavior are in some measure parallel (not just successive) phenomena since both are presented as willful suppressions of the obvious truths about God and God's design in the natural world." Notice that Gagnon is not saying anything about homosexual orientation or feelings, but rather simply about what actions we choose to engage in.
To bolster his argument that this passage is an intentional echo of the creation story, Gagnon points out the parallels between Romans 1:23 and Genesis 1:26 -- both mention the image of God and humans, the likeness of humans, birds, four footed animals, and reptiles. Romans 1:25 also refers to a "lie" (see Genesis 3); Romans 1:27 refers to shame (see Genesis 3:8), and the word "knowledge" is all over this passage, bringing to mind the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden in Genesis 2.
What is Paul trying to get at with these textual references? Gagnon puts it this way:
"Both idolatry and same-sex intercourse reject God's verdict that what was made and arranged was 'very good' (Genesis 1:31). Instead of recognizing their indebtedness to the one God in whose image and likeness they were made, humans worshiped statues made in their own image and likeness. Instead of exercising dominion over the animal kingdom, they bowed down not only to images of themselves but also to images of animals. Instead of acknowledging that God had made them 'male and female' and had called on them to copulate and procreate, they denied the transparent complementarity of their sexuality and engaged in sex with the same sex, indulging themselves in irresponsible sexual passion on which stable and productive family structures could not be built. As with Jesus," -- see for example Mark 10:6-9 -- "so with Paul: the creation story in Genesis does not leave room for a legitimate expression of same-sex intercourse."
If Gagnon is correct -- and I think it is difficult to argue that he's wrong about Paul having the creation story in mind as he's writing Romans 1, there are just too many parallels -- then this passage refers not just to idolatrous priests and priestesses, but to all humanity, sinful and broken. Just as gossip and disobedience to parents and murder are evidence of our sinful, broken nature, homosexual activity is part of our brokenness.
How does this apply? In the current debate, the two main issues are 1) the blessing of same sex unions within the church, and 2) the ordination of homosexually active persons. Each of these issues requires that the church pronounce God's blessing on a relationship -- first between God and two persons of the same gender, and second between God and a church and a leader. Can we bless something that is defined in God's word as contrary to God's desire for creation? That goes contrary to the whole idea of what a blessing is.
Clearly, Romans 1:18-32 says that homosexual activity is contrary to God's design. By definition, this puts it (along with all those other items named in the passage) in the category of "sin." The Bible does not say this to judge individuals who are active in homosexual relationships, but the Bible tells these people (and all of us) the truth about ourselves. The goal of God's word is not to condemn us, but to help me understand why I suffer the consequences of my own actions. God's goal is that I would turn back to him, even if I am caught in a sin I cannot escape.
The solution to sin is not to bless what God has declared sin; rather, it is to repent and trust in Jesus for forgiveness.