Saint Paul through the Looking-Glass

July 08, 2012

by Stephen Weierman

I'm not one to shy away from a challenge. When I saw the sticker on our front sign that read “Romans Chapter 1 Verses 18-32,” I had the crazy idea that I should talk about this passage. Then I realized that the only way to talk about this passage, without just dismissing it outright, would mean talking about how to read the Bible. At Judson. It doesn't seem to be a terribly popular topic here, especially when we talk about some of the seemingly uglier passages such as this one.

When we read the Bible, we are stumbling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. The stories are often fantastical, out-of-order, topsy-turvy, sometimes ugly, and sometimes even self-contradicting. Is it any wonder those of us who do read the Bible have a tendency to cherry-pick? Is it any wonder some would want to relegate it to the dustbin of history?

When we read the Bible, it can be easy to forget we're not reading a single book. The various books that comprise the Bible were written over the course of 1,100 years by countless writers. (1) They had been passed down orally, edited, revised, transcribed, and translated throughout history.

When we read Paul's letters, we can forget that: (1) they were written by Paul, who makes no pretense to speak for God; (2) they were not written in the order they are presented; (3) they were written over the course of years, and Paul, being human, changed; (4) they were not all necessarily written by Paul, some were just attributed to him; and (5) we are reading a translation of a copy of a transcription.

The Bible is such a massive and daunting collection of books, and only a few passages deal with the so-called “gay issue.” Although, when you hear some other preachers, you'd think that's all the Bible talked about. But there are only six “clobber passages” in the Bible (eight if you count all the references to Sodom and Gomorrah). They are the passages that fundamentalists and conservatives use to argue against the morality of any sexuality that doesn't fit into their heteronormative standards. This passage from Paul's letter to the Church in Rome is the longest and most descriptive. The other New Testament passages that allegedly address this issue were either written by or attributed to Paul. Given this, and Paul's views on women, he's starting to sound like the sort of guy we wouldn't necessarily want to invite over for coffee.

I have a complicated relationship with the Apostle Paul. He didn't make a good first impression on me, but my opinion of him has changed considerably over the years for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Paul was a convert.

Conversion is stepping through the looking glass that leaves you in a world that seems backwards. It is a crossing of a boundary, a change so radical that in the Bible stories it is often accompanied with a change in name. Paul used to be Saul, a Pharisee and devout believer in and defender of Jewish Law. He was also a persecutor of the early Christian Church. Suddenly, he becomes the apostle Paul, a missionary to the gentiles, and very insistent that the Jewish Law not be forced on the gentile converts, this law including the requirement of circumcision. Without Paul's work, the Christian Church might not have grown beyond being a sect in Judaism.

There can be few things as frustrating as being around someone who has converted. It doesn't matter what they've converted to, whether it is a religion, or political or philosophical viewpoint, although it is much more irritating if they've converted to something that is directly contrary to your own position. Converts tend to be zealously outspoken and critical of others who do not share their views or their zeal. This is often the reason some vegans can seem so obnoxious. It is so obvious—to us—in retrospect—that eating animal products is wrong, it should be obvious to you too!

The second reason I admire Paul is his writings on salvation by the Grace of God. There is simply not enough time to go into this here, but I would recommend reading Jay Bakker's wonderful book Fall to Grace.

The third reason is in the modern testimony. Paul was a complicated and thoroughly human individual, and has left us, nearly two-thousand years later, with much to talk about. In the same book from which the modern testimony is taken, Bishop Spong speculated that Paul might be in the closet. What's remarkable about this claim, is the outrage it generated in more conservative and moderate Christians. (2)

The debate over the presence or absence of queer individuals in the Bible is something I could talk about at great length, but I personally believe sermons should never be of great length, and I haven't really gotten to Paul's letter yet. So let's talk about that instead.

Reading from Paul's letter:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”

This sounds like an obnoxious convert moment to me. It's so obvious God exists, it should be obvious to you too!

Moving on to the crux of the matter:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

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.”

Let's look briefly at two possible interpretations of this The first is that, by “unnatural” Paul means “unusual” or “out of the ordinary,” which has no ethical connotation to it. Indeed, in the same letter, Paul later uses the same phrase later to describe God's own behavior in saving the Gentiles. Romans 11:24 “ have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature (or unnaturally), into a cultivated olive tree...” If “unnatural” means immoral, then God is also immoral. (3)

Another interpretation is that they acted contrary to their own nature. Think of the story of Sodom. While some may say God destroyed Sodom because of homosexual behavior, when you actually read the story, it is about “all the men of the city” plotting gang-rape. The notion that all the men in Sodom were gay is downright absurd. That was a story about violent sexual abuse of strangers, and this passage in Romans could be an account of why that happened.

Finally, we come to this:

“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. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 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.”

Look at that list again. ...they are gossips, slanderers,... insolent, haughty, boastful,... rebellious towards parents, foolish. ...those who practice such things deserve to die... Can you imagine what would happen to a minister who preached in any church in America that gossips should be put to death? No where in that list does Paul include sexual “misbehavior.”

This passage, the grounds by which some say homosexuality is unnatural and homosexuals deserve death, has just crumbled under their feet.

It's not just for our sake that we need to wrestle with these writings and be prepared to respond to them. There has been a wave of dangerous rhetoric in the guise of Christian morality over the past couple of months. In North Carolina, Pastor Sean Harris gave the parents of his church “special dispensation” to beat the gay out of their kids (4), this was followed by Pastor Charles Worley calling for placing all gay and lesbian individuals in concentration camps (5). In Kansas, Pastor Curtis Knapp went so far as to call for the government to make homosexuality a capital offense (6). In Australia, a Major Andrew Craibe, a Media Relations Director for the Salvation Army, echoed this sentiment that gays deserve death, and maintained that this was the official position of the Salvation Army (7).

And yet, the tide of public opinion is turning for the better, both in and out of the Church. Just this Friday, the Presbyterian Church very nearly passed an overture that would change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two persons” in their Directory of Worship (8). While this defeat was heartbreaking, the narrowness of it (308-338) shows the writing is on the wall. I have faith that one day civil society and the Christian Church will look back on this time with the same moral clarity we now have about slavery and segregation. Until such a time, we progressive Christians need to make ourselves heard. If the church is to have any future, we cannot allow bigots to have a monopoly on Christ.

The fact that you are here tells me that you haven't given up on Church, although many of us have been given reason to do so. Let's not give up on the Bible either. When read correctly and critically, it is worth reading. It has wonderful stories, insight in how people have viewed God over the centuries, and even some good morals. Even when we outright reject some of it (and there is much worth rejecting), we need to understand the how and why of what those parts are to properly defend and inform those who have been so wrongly oppressed in the name of God.

We should also read books about the Bible. What we find in reading about scripture is that reading a translation of a centuries-old piece of religious literature is oftentimes very challenging, and the most learned of scholars disagree about many important issues. It is a downright humbling realization: reading the Bible, thinking about God, trying to make some moral sense of our lives, we will inevitably get some things wrong, regardless of how much we may study.

I'll leave you with another passage from Romans, one that would be beneficial to remind others of its existence. Romans, Chapter 14, Verse 13-14. “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”

Ancient Testimony: Romans 1:18:32

Modern Testimony: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture by Bishop John Shelby Spong

Is this the Word of the Lord? As such, these verses would certainly present us in this age with problems. But these words make no claim to be the words of God. They are rather the words of Paul, a first-century Jewish convert to Christianity, lifted verbatim out of his voluminous correspondence. There is no doubt but that this man Paul was a powerful shaping influence on Christianity. There is also no doubt but that he was passionate, specific, complex, emotional, frail, controversial, self-centered, and human. He was a pioneering missionary figure who felt an intense vocation to be the apostle of Christ to the gentiles. As such, he lived upon that edge of prejudice and hostility that always accompanies the crossing of a boundary.

1.  Harris, Stephen L. Reading the Bible, 7th Ed. McGraw-Hill, 2007. Pg 2.

2. Goldman, Ari L. “Was Saint Paul Gay? Claim Stirs Fury.” New York Times 2/2/91.

3. Helminiak, Daniel A. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Alamo Square Press, 1994. Pg. 63-66.

4. Murdoch, Cassie. "Horrible Pastor Advocates Beating the Gay out of Young Kids."

5. Towle, Andy. "Thousands Protest NC Pastor Charles Worley, Who Says Gays Should Be Fenced in and Killed."

6. Towle, Andy. "Kansas Pastor Says Government Should Kill Gays."

7. Farrell, Kevin. "Salvation Army Media Relations Director: Gays Should Be Put to Death."

8. More Light Presbyterians Media Release: Presbyterian Church (USA) Discusses Marriage, Misses Historic Opportunity. See also, Zoll, Rachel. "Presbyterians reject redefinition of marriage." Huston Chronicle 7/6/12.


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