Paul is such fun.
While his preeminent importance in the development of normative Christian doctrine is indisputable, his writings are enigmatic at best and indecipherable at worst. What is the heart of Paul? Does Paul reveal himself in Galatians 3:28, the so-called “Christian magna carta” —no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—or in other writings that seemingly support slavery and the subjugation of women?
Paul also finds himself plopped down in the midst of 21st century debates over gays. Again, the question arises whether he was the great inclusivist who encouraged Gentile participation in the early church without precondition, without the proper male genitalia, against the wishes of church leaders, and contrary to scripture and centuries of tradition, or was he the greatest gay-basher in history? Though his “vice lists” have been dubiously translated to include homosexuality, his ranting in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans may be the favorite “clobber passage” of modern gay-bashers.
they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 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.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 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.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
How do modern exegetes unpack these harsh words? Yes, this passage is about idolatry, first and foremost. The evils of homosexual behavior are his assumption not his point. Yes, Paul’s words must be viewed from the cultural perspective of the 1st century Greco-Roman world, and yes, Paul must be understood as a Jew learned in the law to include the Levitical abominations. These influences certainly colored his perception, and it is unfair to ask a 21st century question of this 1st century man. He simply would have harbored a radically different understanding of human sexuality than we do today.
But, we can go further. What was Paul’s central theme of his letter to the Romans? Grace. That humankind is made right with God through God’s own offer of welcome and not through human effort, achievement, or merit—“works of the law” in Pauline terms. Trust God and rely upon that promise (faith). Paul works this out as he wrestles with the premise of Hebrew religion that Jews are God’s chosen over against his view that Gentiles should also be included. Justification by grace through faith and not by works is the simplified summary. So, if these are Paul’s themes in his letter to the Romans, where do his introductory remarks (quoted above) fit in?
Paul is setting a trap. He is speaking to Jewish listeners, and he gets them nodding as he recites their cultural stereotypes about the unclean gentiles. But wait, he suggests as chapter two unfolds, aren’t we Jews also guilty of breaking the rules? How are we different? Don’t we also depend upon God’s grace? And then Paul is off and running with his interplay of the themes of grace, faith, works, Jew and Gentile, etc. throughout the remainder of his letter to the Romans.
In doing research for my current book project about the history of the movement for full inclusion of gays in the life of the church, I came across a succinct version of this exegesis, which came in a 1977 Presbyterian debate. George Edwards of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a member of a Presbyterian Task Force on homosexuality, spoke these words:
Paul says here that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions”. Is this, then, Paul’s theology? Of course not! God never gave anybody up! What kind of theology would that be? Paul is here using a rhetorical device to get his legalistic reader all worked up in self-righteous frenzy before he hits him over the head with his own inadequacy and dependency on God’s grace.**
Perhaps we can take meaning from this passage of Paul after all. Perhaps it is a clobber passage that offers an analogy for our current debate, but no, not to strike gays but to slam the “self-righteous frenzy” of 21st century legalists and to point them, and all of us, toward our inadequacies and dependency on God’s grace.
Paul, you sly fox. What a wretched man you are. Sounds like a good book title.
**Quoted in Chris Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988) p. 164.