Archives For Paul

We now come to the most important passage in our study of homosexuality. It’s the only passage that describes homosexual romans_001activity in any detail, and unlike every other passage that mentions same sex intercourse, Romans 1 talks about both gay and lesbian sex. After describing humanity’s fall into idolatry (Rom 1:18-23), Paul writes:

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (1:24-27)

Being raised in a conservative Christian environment, I assumed that my study of Romans 1 would take about 30 minutes, since its condemnation of homosexuality was as clear as day. Well, I was wrong. After looking closely at the text, I’ve seen that Romans 1 is about as clear as a foggy morning. However, as I continue to study the passage, the sun is beginning to break through the dim mist and shed light on this crucial passage.

Scholars have offered at least 5 arguments against a traditional reading of Romans 1, and all of them find a degree of support in the text. Let me repeat: There are arguments gleaned from the text of Scripture (not just the presupposition of the author) that Romans 1 does not condemn all forms same-sex relations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bible believing Christians can disagree with these conclusions, but until we actually refute the textual arguments used to support those conclusions, we’ll give the impression that we care more about what we want to believe rather than what the Bible actually says. Rather than witnessing the sun knife its way through the fog, we’ll remain in our PJ’s basking in the bright lights of our living room. Being biblical requires a lot of hard work, especially when it comes to tough passages like Romans 1.

So, here are the five best arguments used to refute a traditional reading of Romans 1. Keep in mind, some of these arguments mutually exclude the other four, while some of the arguments may supplement the others.

First, Romans 1 does not consider homosexual acts to be inherently sinful. Rather, Paul has in mind excessive lust and illicit same-sex activity (sex outside of marriage, sex with boys, orgies, etc.). After all, Paul explicitly describes the sin as “shameful lusts” (v. 26) by people who were “inflamed with lust for one another” and committed “shameful acts with other men” (v. 27). Paul does not have in mind loving, consensual, monogamous sex between partners of the same sex.

Second, Paul thinks that same-sex activity may be “dirty” but not sinful. That is, according to his Jewish upbringing, same-sex activity was a taboo, a violation of ritual purity (e.g. Lev 18:22) but it wasn’t inherently sinful. To support this reading, scholars often point out that the whole argument of Rom 1:18-32 is a trap for his Jewish opponent. Paul nabs him in Rom 2:1 when he turns the tables around: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” In sum, Paul assumes a Jewish view of “purity” in Romans 1 to get his opponent on his side before he punches him in the nose in Romans 2. Paul, therefore, reveals nothing about whether same sex activity is sinful or not.

Third, Paul doesn’t actually condemn same sex activity committed by those whose orientation is toward the same sex. Look at what Paul says! “Women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (v. 26) and that men “abandoned natural relations with women” (v. 27). Paul doesn’t have gay people in mind; rather, he’s prohibiting homosexual sex by heterosexual people, since gay and lesbian people don’t “exchange” heterosexual sex for homosexual sex. They simply pursue homosexual sex because that’s the way they’re wired.

Fourth, the type of homosexual activity Paul has in mind in Romans 1 is linked to idolatry. This argument carries with it the clearest textual support, since Rom 1:23 explicitly talks about idolatry, and the stuff going on in 1:24-27 is clearly linked to that idolatry. So, again, Paul only prohibits same-sex activity that is linked to idolatry and therefore does not condemn non-idolatrous and monogamous same sex relations.

Lastly, Paul actually does condemn all forms of same sex activity. Idolatrous or not, impure or pure, whether committed by gay or straight individuals. Paul believes all of it is wrong. The question is: why? Why does Paul believe that same-sex intercourse is wrong? Because it feminizes the passive partner (in male-male sex) or it forces a woman to act as a man (for female-female sex). And this is wrong for Paul and for his Greco-Roman audience because women were inferior. In the words of Bernadette Brooten: “Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations” (Brooten, Love Between Women, 216, 302, 303). So, if the church wants to take Paul’s words as authoritative, then it also should take Paul’s reason for those words as authoritative: women are passive, inferior, and have no right to leave their kitchens and play the role of the man. This is why Brooten concludes: “I hope that churches today, being appraised of the history that I have presented, will no longer teach Rom 1:26f as authoritative” (ibid., 302).

I could cite several other arguments against a traditional reading of Romans 1, but these 5 are the most popular and, to my mind, the most persuasive. Over the next five posts, however, I’ll show why I am not persuaded by these five arguments. Some of them are actually quite bad and I hope that you can see why. Others—especially the last one—are good and I’ve had to wrestle with them a bit more thoroughly. But even the last argument misses at least two very important things in this passage and that’s why it doesn’t carry as much weight as it may seem, as I’ll show in a later post.

For my next post, we’ll tackle the first argument above.

I often hear in recent discussion about the Bible and homosexuality: “Since homosexuality as a sexual category was unknown to Paul, he could not have critiqued it.” The

implication is that when Paul talks about same-sex activity in Romans 1 and elsewhere, he must have had something more specific, something more narrowly defined, in mind. For instance, perhaps he was prohibiting men having sex with boys (pederasty), or male prostitution, or perhaps we was prohibiting heterosexuals from having homosexual sex.

So is this correct? Was “homosexuality” unknown to Paul? And if so, is it inaccurate to make Paul’s speak to our modern category?

It is true that the modern categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality do not fit the ancient Roman worldview. We saw this to some extent in the previous post. However, there is evidence that some ancient Romans were exclusively interested in sexual partners of the same sex.

For instance, the Roman writer Suetonius says that Caesar Claudius “was possessed of an extravagant desire for women, having no experience with males whatsoever.” The fact that Suetonius feels the need to highlight this and even add (the seemingly superfluous statement) that he had no taste for men whatsoever (rare among the emperors), shows that he was a bit of an anomaly. Claudius was totally straight (a 1 on the Kinsey scale). However, another emperor Galba seems to have been into dudes way more (maybe even exclusively) than women. The emperor Hadrian, though married to a woman, also had a lover named Antonius who clearly garnered Hadrian’s affections much more than his wife. Pliny the elder refers to “men who hate intercourse with women.” Firmicus Maternus (4th Cent. AD, astrological writer) talks about men who are “lovers of boys” and who also show an aversion to having sex with women. And Martial writes about some men who only had experience with other men (11.58).

Now again, these men may never have received the charge of being “effeminate” or womanly. As long as they remained the active partner in the union, they would maintain their manly persona. And this is what Rome cared about most. However, I still think it would be accurate to say that if such a person lived today, having exclusive interest in the same sex, we would call them gay. And if the emperor Claudius lived today, we would call him “straight” and not just manly. Craig Williams, author of Roman Homosexuality, rightly says: “If they were alive today, men like this would no doubt be called, and would likely call themselves, straight or gay” (Kindle loc. 3889).

Moreover, some men not only had intercourse with other men (sometimes exclusively), but actually married other men.

Caesar Nero had at least two public wedding ceremonies to other men, and in one case he played the role of the bride: he even wore a veil and played the passive role in sexual intercourse. The same goes for the third century (A.D.) emperor Elagabalus, who was a bride to his husband. The Roman satirist Juvenal makes mention of other similar marriages among men (2.117-42), as does the author Martial (1.24; 12.42). Plato, the famous Greek philosopher, was never married and never praises women with erotic expression. According to historian Martti Nissinen, “A modern reader would easily identify…Plato’s own sexual orientation as predominantly homosexual” (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, 59).

I don’t think it’s accurate then to say that since homosexuality as a category didn’t exist back then, the NT writers could not have been critiquing it. True, they weren’t critiquing our 19th century concept, but they were—or, every well could have been—critiquing a parallel concept expressed in their own terms.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve often heard people say that the ancients didn’t have any concept of inborn sexual orientation. That is, homosexual acts were simply what some people did and it wasn’t a believed to be an outflow of some sort of biological orientation. Or at least, the ancients weren’t aware that such orientation existed. The implication is this: If Paul only knew that sexual orientation is inborn, he would not have critiqued same sex acts. If Paul was alive today, he’d be okay with consensual, monogamous, Christ-centered gay marriage. Is this true?

We’ll see in the next post.

A post with this title could go in either of two directions. It could be about a female pastor delivering a child (and as I write about this option, I definitely picture labor setting in mid-sermon). Or it could go in the following direction:


In Galatians 4:19, Paul uses some startling imagery to talk about his relationship with those to whom he ministers. He refers to them as:

“…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”

What do you make of this? Pretty crazy, right?

We would expect Paul to say that he loves the Galatians. We wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say that he greatly desired that they behave like Christ. But what Paul actually says is way over the top!

Why is Paul so concerned over what the Galatians are believing? Because they are his little children; his offspring. And Paul is their father, right? Well, not exactly. Paul is the mother. And according to this analogy, the Galatians haven’t been born yet. Paul is a laboring mother to these Christians, his contractions are extremely painful (“the anguish of childbirth”), and his intense pushing is meant to result in a Christ-formed version of their current selves.

My wife holding our then-newborn second daughter.

My wife holding our then-newborn second daughter.

You can’t say Paul didn’t have an imagination. Nor can you say that he didn’t love those he ministered to. I have witnessed two birthings, and I can attest to their intensity (my wife understands Paul’s phrase “the anguish of childbirth” on a much deeper level than I ever will).

If there are any pastors out there who are in it for their own benefit, who don’t particularly care for their flock, who can’t remember the last time they felt the burden of caring for someone’s soul—these are not Paul’s kind of pastors.

Paul’s kind of pastor sees Christlikeness as the goal for every person he interacts with. He wants to look at the people God has placed in his care and see Christ. Paul’s kind of pastor prays that this will happen. But he doesn’t stop there. He preaches in order to focus their minds on the truth. But he doesn’t stop there. He admonishes and encourages them toward the goal. But that’s still not all of it. He sees them as his own children and believes himself to be divinely tasked with laboring (in the maternal sense) until the image of Christ shines brightly in each soul under his care.

To the “ordinary Christians” out there: how badly do you want to be like Christ? If Paul was willing to go through spiritual labor for his spiritual children, should we not value the goal of Christ being formed in us? Paul spoke these words to the Galatians in order to show them his concern on their behalf so that they would take his warnings and teaching seriously. Let’s work with our pastors to this end (Hebrews 13:17 points us in this direction).

To all of our pastors: you have babies to birth. Paul wouldn’t have you believe that your task is easy. Push and strain with all you have—the end result is worth it. Never lose your motherly heart for us, your children in the faith. God has made you our mother, please don’t let your anguish become anything less.

I think we can all agree that the Bourne films were some of the best movies ever made. I know they’ve been off the radar for awhile, but I was reminded of them again while watching the 2011 film Unknown, which was basically The Bourne Identity with a few of the minor details changed and a different cast. Not a bad movie, but still, it’s not Jason Bourne.

Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since I’ve watched the Bourne movies, but I had never thought critically about what they were portraying. You have a guy who was trained to be a ruthless killer. He was essentially dehumanized, reprogrammed like a computer, rebuilt like a machine. He had no freedom—he was part of a system that used him as a weapon to execute nefarious missions.

Then, through a catastrophic event in the midst of an assassination attempt, he loses all connection with his past and is set on a journey to overcome the beast he once was and live as a decent human being. Ultimately, the story is one of redemption, where an unexpected turn of events gives Jason Bourne an opportunity to change his identity, to become a new man.

Many of us are drawn to this story. From a human perspective, who isn’t looking for a second chance? Who isn’t battling the person they have become and longing for an opportunity to leave it all behind and become the person they’ve always wanted to be? This longing is confirmed by the 250,000 titles that an Amazon search for “self help” yields.

From a Christian perspective, this type of storyline is the basis of our hope. In many ways, Paul was the original Jason Bourne. His training and beliefs led him into some nefarious missions. In the midst of a mission to assassinate followers of Jesus, Paul was disconnected from his past through a catastrophic event (the appearance of Jesus). From there he was given a new identity (Paul vs. Saul), he was literally recreated (2 Cor. 5:17). He was a new man, given a new beginning, a new purpose.

As Christians, this is our story. Of course, the Bourne films are not a perfect analogy for the Christian life. But I think they reveal a longing that lies deep within every human heart. We know that something is wrong, we see the monsters that we have become, and we long for a break from our past. We know that it won’t come easily, but we believe that it’s worth fighting for. So we make movies that express this longing. And we watch movies that show us this drama played out in the lives of fictional characters.

In the final analysis, I am Jason Bourne. (I really wanted to write that sentence.) And so are you. We have been trained to be something other than human. But there is hope of change. It doesn’t come easily, and it certainly won’t come without outside intervention. But the death and resurrection of Jesus have provided the catastrophic event that gives us a second chance at life and a new identity.

So take a lesson from the life of Jason Bourne. And let’s hope that this summer’s release of The Bourne Legacy (sans Matt Damon) doesn’t let down the franchise.

I ended my last post with the bold assertion that Calvin got Paul’s understanding of salvation right. The claim is somewhat ridiculous; no single interpreter has captured the full contours of Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) theology. So let me explain what I mean.

After studying Paul’s’ understanding of salvation and comparing his view with that of the Essenes (as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls), it seems rather clear to me that Paul emphasized the priority of God’s agency more consistently and thoroughly than any other ancient writings of his day. And inasmuch as John Calvin emphasized this too, I think he was correct.

Let me be more specific. In the first century, Jewish people knew the nation of Israel still stood under the curse of the covenant for (continually) breaking the law (Deut 28; Lev 26). The covenant that God made with the nation on Sinai, in other words, ended in failure (see Jer 11), and Jewish people living in the days of Jesus knew it. “So how do we fix it?” they wondered. “How do we get right with God?” For most Jews, they would say that we “repent and return to the law.” After all, isn’t this exactly what Deuteronomy says (Deut 4:29-31; 30:1-10)?

Well, yes it does, but Deuteronomy (and the Prophets) also says that people have hard hearts (Deut 29:4) and simply can’t return to God under their own power. No matter how loud the prophets preached, no matter how many curses God rained down, people simply cannot repent and turn to God. “If a leopard can change its spots,” says Jeremiah, “then you too can do who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23). Or in the words of Paul, “there is no one who seeks after God, no, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). We are all dead as a doornail and cannot turn to God unless God first turns to us and declares us to be righteous even though we are wicked (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11). God must create faith in us and must cause us to obey if we are going to be in a right relationship with Him.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Cause us to obey? That’s taking things a little too far.”

But this is exactly what Ezekiel promised and what Paul believes took place through Calvary and Pentecost. God caused you to believe, repent, and then obey. Deep into the Old Testament, Ezekiel promised that God would “put His Spirit within you and cause you to walk in His commandments” (36:27). And for the few of you who care, the Hebrew word asah is in the hifil, which emphasizes causation. In fact, such radical emphasis on divine agency floods Ezekiel’s entire prophecy in chapters 36-37 and becomes a vital Old Testament text for our New Testament understanding of salvation. For instance, Jesus, Paul, and others often talk about the “Spirit that gives life,” or the “Spirit of life” (Rom 8:1-11; 2 Cor 3:3-6; John 6:63), and when they do, they are thinking of Ezekiel’s radical emphasis on divine agency being fulfilled in their midst. Not only did Ezekiel promise that the Spirit would cause God’s people to obey, but in Ezekiel 37 he promised that the same Spirit would breathe life into dead bones that were very dry. This “dry bones vision” becomes a paradigm, in the NT, for how God saves people. He unilaterally (i.e., by Himself) breathes life into them.

Leopards don’t change their spots, dead bones can’t manufacture life, and you didn’t turn to God. God turned to you.

All that to say, Paul emphasized the priority of divine agency in salvation. Since we are utterly depraved and incapable of turning to God, God must take the initiative to unilaterally infuse us with faith, obedience, and Spirit-generated life.

Now, you Calvinists may wonder what all the hub-bub is about. Nothing I’ve said is all that original, nor is it much different than what you can learn from any Systematic theology class (at some schools, anyway). But what I have discovered from studying the Dead Sea Scrolls is that Paul’s decided emphasis on divine agency in salvation was unparalleled in first century Judaism. Interestingly, even the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not underscore God’s agency in salvation as comprehensively and intricately as Paul. And—this is important—of all the Jews in the first century, the Essenes were the so-called “hyper Calvinists” of the ancient world. According to Josephus, they believed that God controls everything, and yet according to their own writings, even they don’t emphasize God’s work in salvation to the same degree as Paul.

So, writing academic books can be water to the soul, believe it or not. Because when I woke up this morning, I wasn’t the best father, I was inadequate as a husband, and I fell far short of being a “good Christian.” But God still loves me just the same, because His love is dictated not by what I do but by what Christ has done. And this unconditioned, unilateral, one-way love that we call “grace” is not just a Christianeze buzz word, but the controlling and life-sustaining power that transforms us from offensive enemies to real ingredients of divine joy.