Archives For Romans

For the last fifteen years, I’ve pretty much had only one answer to the question, “How are you doing?” It’s always: “Tired.” Or maybe, “Busy, tired. But good!” As far as I can tell, this is the standard answer to the question.

How are Americans doing? They’re tired.

When I started college in 2000, I became acquainted with “busy.” It was a lot of work. And I was always tired. Then I started seminary and realized I previously had no idea what “busy” was. For much of seminary, sleep was like a hometown friend that you gradually lose contact with. And then I graduated and entered the real world and discovered, yet again, that “busy” always has added dimensions and “tired” is essentially a lifelong companion. Then we started having kids, and well, I’m looking forward to sleeping in again when I retire.

Life is good, but it’s hard. Life is rewarding, but I’m exhausted. I know I’m not the only one.

So why are we so tired? Sure, we’re tired because we work too hard, we go to bed too late, we book our schedules too tightly. But those are just the practical reasons. I’m interested in the theology of it. The theology or rest, and also the theology of tiredness. In this short post, I’ll just offer two biblical reasons for our constant tiredness.

Tired 1

The primary reason we get tired is that God designed us that way. He actually built it into the fabric of his world. God created everything in six days, then rested on the seventh. And that becomes the pattern in Scripture. Just as God rested, we human beings are called to rest as well.

This implies that even before sin entered the world, human beings needed rest. We needed sleep. This only makes sense: Could something as obviously divine as sleep be a mere side effect of sin?

So our need for rest is actually good. It was modeled by God himself. We were designed to put in a good day’s work and then to need rest, to finish off a solid work week and then to need to relax. Rest is good, and so is tiredness.

Next time someone answers your “how are you” with “I’m tired,” maybe your response should be: “Good!”

But another major reason for our tiredness is the fall of humanity into sin. This world is broken. Every aspect of this world has been tainted by the reality of sin. This makes the world dysfunctional, disorderly, and actually: tired.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes declares all things “vanity,” which is his way of calling life a huge enigma, a stubborn puzzle that frustrates humanity at every turn. And in that context, he says,

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (1:8).

It’s a tired world. Worn out. Full of weariness to an unutterable extent. Sin bogs us down, trips us up, and quite literally pulls us toward the grave.

We are tired from living in a sin-stained world. The exhaustion of this world will eventually overcome us all. In the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher reminds us to pursue God while we’re young, before this weary world exhausts our bodies so fully that they come to a grinding halt (12:1–8).

Our own sin contributes to this exhaustion as well. As Paul makes clear in Romans 1, human beings are worshipers by nature, and while we are designed to worship God, we often turn our ultimate pursuit to idolatrous ends.

For many Americans, our idols are our careers, our reputation, our financial stability, and our carefully purchased world of comfort. This means that we often work harder and longer hours than God intends because we are pursuing much more than we need. Our greed forces us into cycles of achievement that wear our bodies down. We believe in the myth of the self-made man or woman, so we expend more energy than we have to create our own kingdoms.

But God created us to be dependent. You’re tired because you need rest. That feeling of exhaustion is God’s reminder that you need him, that you can’t do everything yourself, that there are not enough hours in the day to build his kingdom and yours at the same time.

So go ahead and be tired. Don’t be ashamed of it. Enjoy that satisfied exhaustion that comes at the end of (and all throughout) a job well done. But if you find yourself feeling exhausted and realize that you’re wearing out your body in idolatrous pursuits, then take God’s gift of fatigue seriously and rest. He made you human for a reason; he designed human beings to need rest for a reason.

Our goal should not be tired-free living, as though we were professional vacationers. Our goal is to be tired for the right reasons, to enjoy a godly exhaustion our whole lives, and then to finally enter that blessed rest of God for all eternity (see Hebrews 4).

After two weeks of listening to testimonies and putting flesh on the “issue,” we dove back into the text last Tuesday night in week 8 of our Homosexuality class. As I warned my students, this week was going to involve some nitty gritty, in-depth, bust-out-your-lexicon interpretive questions.

After finding our classroom (you had to have been there…), we spent the first half of class finishing our discussion of Romans 1. Last week, we summed up the logic of Paul’s argument, and this week, we answered all of the “what about this” and “what about that” sort of pushbacks to the traditional view. Isn’t Romans 1 just about idolatry? Or lust? Or seven-vices-by-jim-fetter-40124360158heterosexuals having homosexual sex? Or isn’t Paul just talking about pederasty (sex with boys), or prostitution, or other forms of non-consensual, exploitative sex? If he is, then Romans 1 would be irrelevant for gay men and women seeking a consensual, monogamous, no-sex-until-marriage sort of relationship.

But after looking at the historical situation, literary context, rhetorical context, and the meaning of the phrase para physin (“against nature”) in light of its Greco-Roman and Jewish context (yes, it was a tedious first hour of class!), we concluded that Paul’s words do indeed apply to all forms of homosexual sex—not just the bad ones. But I’ve already written a bunch of blogs, perhaps too many, on Romans 1, so I’ll sum up the second hour of class.

I haven’t actually blogged about Paul’s references to same-gender sex elsewhere in his letters. So this part of the class was new territory for me. On two other occasions, Paul mentions some form of same-sex eroticism, but there’s a massive debate about what he’s talking about. Here are the passages:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality (malakoi and arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (arsenokoitai), enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10)

In these passages, Paul mentions some sort of homosexual activity in a long-list of vices, and the words he uses—malakoi and arsenokoitai—have been subject to much debate. Hence Daniel Helminiak’s evaluation that “There is no real certainty about what these texts mean…Nobody knows for certain what these words mean, so to use them to condemn homosexuals is really dishonest and unfair” (Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 107).

I appreciate Helminiak’s interpretive honesty, but I’m afraid that his conclusion is terribly overstated. The Greek word malakoi (and its Latin equivalent) was widely used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to effeminate men. The word doesn’t describe guys who were artistic and bad at sports, but men who crossed gender boundaries in significant ways. Malakoi were men who dressed like women, acted like women, talked like women, shaved their body hair like women, and—not always but most of the time—were known for having sex with other men, just like women. Not everyone who was malakoi (lit. “soft”) received sex from other men, but many did. And since the word is listed after sexual immorality and adultery, and before arsenokoitai (a sexual term as we’ll see), it’s almost certain that Paul had in mind not just men with a limp wrists who couldn’t throw a football, but precisely men who received sex from other men. Or, as the note in the ESV correctly states: “the passive partner in homosexual sex.” Such usage was common in Paul’s Greco-Roman world.

This interpretation is confirmed by the meaning of arsenokoitai. Now, to be fair, arsenokoitai never occurs in all of the ancient Greek literature prior to 1 Corinthians 6. Paul creates this word, but not ex nihilio. That is, he coins this term by smashing two Greek words together: arsen (male) and koite (bed), or “one who lies with another male.” Where does Paul find his inspiration for such a word? Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the two passages in his Bible that mention and condemn consensual homosexual sex.

The Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 reads:

kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos.

Even if you don’t know Greek, you can tell that the two words arsenos (“male”) and koiten (“lying”) look a lot like the one word arsenokoitai used in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1. That’s because Paul’s word is created out of Leviticus’ two words. In fact, the Hebrew original (mishkab zakur) of Greedy1Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was widely used in Rabbinic literature to refer to male-male homosexual sex (b. Sanh. 54a; ib Sabb. 17b; b. Sukkah 29a; y. Ber 9.50.13c) and its likely that Paul—a Hebrew of Hebrews—is forging a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase. Most importantly, Paul is creating a term about homosexual sex from a passage (Leviticus 18 and 20) that prohibits consensual, same-gender sex.

The fact that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 references “the law” and also uses the term arsenokoitai, derived from Leviticus 18 and 20, suggests quite strongly that Paul is thinking of Leviticus 18 and 20 when he mentions homosexual sex in his list of vices.

Sure, there’s work to be done here. But after the words are studied, it seems clear that malakoi and arsenokoitai refer to the passive and active partners in homosexual sex. I don’t think Paul’s audience would have been terribly shocked or thrown off by Paul’s words. Paul is simply assuming the view held unanimously in Hellenistic Judaism that same-gender sexual relations are against the Creator’s will.

But—and here’s what it gets dicey—so is greed. So is heterosexual immorality (porn?). So is stealing (burning the latest Coldplay album and giving it to your friend). So is slander (Facebook comments?). Whatever we say about homosexual relations, we must also say about all the other sins mentioned in Paul’s list of vices.

Consistency. It’s a tough and often unpracticed virtue.

Oh. My. Goodness. Bill Henson rocks!

Last week’s class was divided into two parts. First, a testimony and challenge from Bill Henson, who Skyped in from Massachusetts. And second, an introduction to what Romans 1 has to say about Homosexuality. Clearly, the first half was the best.

Bill Henson

Bill Henson

Bill Henson is the founder and leader of a ministry called Lead Them Home, which is an outreach to people who are LGBTQ and to those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Bill himself identified and lived as a gay man for a number of years before he found Jesus and fell in love with the gospel. I met Bill through a mutual friend, Lesli, who also Skyped in to our class a few weeks ago. I haven’t met Lesli or Bill in person, but I can say quite confidently—and on behalf of our class—that they have both reshaped how we should think about homosexuality and the church.

Bill is theologically conservative; that is, he does not believe that same-sex marriage is within God’s will. However, he has a heart the size of Texas for the gay community and has a very nuanced and compassionate approach to reaching the gay and lesbian people. His over-sized compassion probably stems from his many years in seeking identity and value in his own homosexuality. Now, he believes that Jesus, rather than his sexuality, should define and determine his value as human being.

Bill articulated with uncanny precision the need for Christians to unconditionally love people who are LGBTQ. No, this doesn’t mean that the church should affirm same-sex relations. Again, Bill is theologically conservative. But he doesn’t let the Bible—or a wrong interpretation of the Bible—prevent him from extending grace to undeserving people. We are all lost and in need of grace. Making such grace inaccessible, or creating a bunch of Pharisaic hoops for people to jump through to enjoy such grace, is neither gracious nor Christian.

“What the evangelical church needs to do,” says Bill, “is not change its theology but change its posture.” And “unless we change our posture, our theology will suffer.” A theology that believes that God died for undeserving enemies and extends scandalous compassion to sinners must—if it wants to be consistent—love others without footnotes and caveats. Again, such love does not demand affirmation of behavior, but neither does such love require prerequisites for relationship. If Jesus could befriend ancient gang-bangers, terrorists, and porn stars (Matthew 9), then His followers can certainly saturate the LGBTQ community with counterintuitive love and compassion.

Bill is also a huge fan of not reducing our view of LGBTQ people to issues surrounding sexuality. People are much more than whom they desire sexually, and Christians bill henson 2diminish the beauty and creativity of other humans by reducing them to a particular sex act. (I feel a passing reference to Phil Robertson coming on…but I refrain.) Gay and Lesbians desire relationship—like the rest of us. They desire love and value—like the rest of us. They desire acceptance, forgiveness, laughter, and joy—stuff that I have been given as a sheer act of grace by my Creator. A Creator who demands that I pass on such blessings to others.

There were too many truthful nuggets Skyped in last Tuesday night. If you desire to learn more, I’d highly encourage you to check out Bill’s ministry at blog.leadthemhome.com.

As far as Romans 1 goes, we took a look at the logic of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 (esp. vv. 26-27) and his use of the Greek phrase para physin, or “contrary to nature” (or “unnatural”). Everyone acknowledges that his phrase virtually makes or breaks one’s view of what Paul is talking about here in Romans. Is Paul talking about “nature” in the sense of “against cultural norms” (as he does in 1 Corinthians 11:14), or does Paul mean “against the design and moral will of the Creator?”

After looking at several Jewish and Stoic writers, along with Paul’s allusions to Genesis 1-2 in Romans 1, we concluded that he does indeed refer to the design and moral will of the Creator, not just to what is socially abnormal (like wearing a tank-top in Saudi Arabia, which is socially unacceptable but not intrinsically evil).

Now, many of you may be a bit lost. If you haven’t engaged in the raging discussion about the meaning of “natural” and “unnatural” in Romans 1, then theses distinctions may seem unclear. So, I’ll circle back around—both in this blog and in class next week—to make sure we all understand the interpretive options available to us. And as I said in class, while I believe that Romans 1 considers all forms of homosexual acts as sin, I would be the first one to acknowledge that there are some serious exegetical arguments to the contrary. Not everyone who disagrees with my traditional view of Romans 1 is tossing biblical authority to the wind. Again, traditionalists need to stop  quoting Romans 1 and start interacting with the contextual, historical, and exegetical complexities of this complicated passage if we are going to demand that people without the gift of celibacy remain single the rest of their lives, or pull our funds from particular Christian-based humanitarian organizations.

The last argument against the traditional view is the best. I’ll never forget first coming across it as I was studying Romans 1 in my office and homosexuality 1wondering, “If this argument is correct, then the conservative church has a lot of rethinking to do.”

The argument goes like this. Paul does indeed prohibit all forms of homoeroticism. The question is why? Why does Paul think it’s wrong for men to have sex with men? Because this would force another man to give up his manly honor to act like a mere woman. I hope you can start to smell the implications brewing here. But if not, here’s a clear summary from 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 should also take Paul’s reason for those words as authoritative: women are passive, inferior, and have no right leaving their kitchens to play the role of the man; likewise, men have no right cooking, cleaning, and playing the passive role in sex—among other things that were designed for mere women to do.

Another major proponent of this view is James Brownson, who in his landmark work concludes: “Male-male sex in particular was ‘unnatural’ because it brownsondegraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245). This was “inherently shameful and degrading for a man to be reduced to the status of a female by playing the passive role in sexual intercourse” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245).

Again, if we take Paul’s words as authoritative, then it seems consistent to take his moral logic as authoritative as well.

But before we lock our wives in the kitchen with their bonnets and ankle-length dresses, are we sure that such shameful feminization of men was lurking behind Paul’s moral logic?

The feminization of the passive partner is well documented in the Greco-Roman culture. Suetonius sums up the view nicely, perhaps crudely, when he mentions Julius Caesar as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman,” referring to the Caesar’s role as the passive partner with the Bithynian king Nicomedes (Suet. Jul. 52.3). Cicero mocks Mark Antony for being a “common whore” and later a “wife” to Curio on the same grounds (Cic. Phil. 2.44-45). The impetus behind these critiques reveals the same assumption: Men should act like the superior men that they are, while women should remain in their inferior role as the receptive partner. When a man acts like a woman in intercourse, he looses his man card.

But does Paul share these assumptions? Does he believe, with Josephus, that women are “in all things inferior to the man” (Josephus, Ap. 2.24)? Would hesubmission-pat-robertson condemn gay sex because it stripped the passive partner of his male honor, lowering him to the status of a mere woman?

When I look at Romans 1, it’s not so clear. Paul grounds his moral logic in the creation account in Genesis 1-2 but does not clearly talk about the passive partner being feminized, nor does he inject his argument with all sorts of Neanderthal assumptions about female inferiority.

We could still salvage this argument if we could show that Paul elsewhere maintains such gender hierarchy, that women are inferior and passive to men and that men should therefore remain active in sexual encounters. A quick survey of Paul’s view of women—without opening up another debate—shows that contrary to the Jewish and Greco-Roman hierarchical view of gender, Paul exhibits a radically high view of women.

For instance, Paul breaks cultural codes by calling several women “co-workers” (Rom 16:3-4; Phil 4:3), “workers in the Lord” (Rom 16:6, 12) deacons (Rom 16:1-2; 1 Tim 3:11), prophets (1 Cor 11:5; cf. Acts 21:9), and he quite possibly calls Phoebe a “patron” (Rom 16:2) and Junia an “apostle” (Rom 16:7). In Christ there is neither “male nor female” (Gal 3:28) and women have just as much authority over their husbands’ bodies as their husbands have over theirs (1 Cor 7:3-5)—a revolutionary statement in its own right. Even if Paul advocates for different roles within the household (e.g. Eph 5:22-33), he commands men to self-sacrificially serve their wives and never, contra Josephus, suggests that females should submit to their husbands because they are inferior to men. Instead, Paul grounds these different but equal roles in the trinity.

Now, this is not the place to argue for or against women in pastoral leadership. Both complimentarian and egalitarian readings of Paul (most of them, at least) would acknowledge Paul’s strikingly high view of women in light of his cultural context. Yet Brownson and Brooten assume that Paul agrees with his Greco-Roman contemporaries that women are inferior and that this belief drives his moral logic for prohibiting homoerotic activity.

Unless Paul comes out and says explicitly that homoerotic behavior reduces the status of men in Romans 1—which many Greco-Roman writers did, but Paul does not—then there is little exegetical merit in assuming that homosexual activity “degraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” and thereby clothing him in “shame” (Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245). It does seem that Paul believed that homoerotic activity confused God-given gender roles. But there is no reason to assume that Paul upheld a socially constructed hierarchy in these roles that assumed a low view of women. Paul believed that women—like Priscilla and Junia—were equal to men.

I’ve been on a short hiatus from blogging about homosexuality and the Bible (producing joy in some readers, and protest in others). Thanksgiving, finals’ week, and setting up the Christmas tree prevented me from finishing our discussion. Since the tree is up and I’ve almost digested all that turkey, I thought it would be good to finish our study of Romans 1, as promised.

Again, by way of reminder, I’m in the process of wrestling with the five main critiques of the idolatry 1traditional interpretation of Romans 1 (i.e. that Paul prohibits all forms of same sex intercourse). I’ve already covered the first three in previous posts.

The fourth argument against the traditional view points out that Paul is only talking about those types of homosexual behavior that are connected with idolatry. After all, Rom 1:23-25 explicitly says that the people in question were idolatrous and “therefore” God gave them over to homosexual relations, among many other things listed in 1:24-32.

I don’t know about you, but this argument seems very convincing. Look, I’m an exegete; a “Biblicist” if you will. This means that I try to look closely at what the text actually says. I’m not afraid to go where the text leads even if it offends the consensus or a particular theological tradition. After all, I’m not going to stand before some tradition or a group of pastors on judgment day. I’m going to stand before the holy God of Israel—my Creator, Savior, and Judge—and give an account to the one who breathed out His word. My allegiance is to the text (that is, the God of the text), and this far outweighs my allegiance to a traditional view of sexuality.

So I was impressed by this counterargument when I first came across it in Justin Lee’s outstanding book Torn. Justin pointed out that the gay and lesbians addressed in Rom 1:25-27 are the same ones who worshiped idols in 1:23. This of course raises the question: What does Paul think of gay people who don’t worship idols? Justin suggests that Romans 1 doesn’t clearly address these people. It only talks about idolatrous forms of homosexual sex.

This seemed like a slam-dunk, nail-in-the-coffin argument against the traditional view. But then I looked closer at Paul’s argument. Something Justin didn’t notice (or at least didn’t address) is the fact that the language of idolatry in 1:19-23 has deep roots in the creation account of Genesis 1-3. God, who is called “the Creator” (1:25), has been revealing himself “ever since the creation of the world” (1:20). Moreover, the use of “females” and “males” in Rom 1:26-27 (instead of “women” and “men”) almost certainly alludes back to Gen 1:27 (LXX). And, if you keep your finger in Genesis 1, you’ll see that Rom 1:23 clearly echoes Gen 1:26. Less clear, though probable, connections between Romans 1 and Genesis 1-3 are references to “the lie” (Rom 1:25), shame (Rom 1:27; cf. Gen 3:1, 8), knowledge (Rom 1:19, 21, 28, 32; cf. Gen 2:17; 3:5), and sentence of death (Rom 1:32; cf. Gen 2:17; 3:4-5, 20, 23).

Whatever is going on in Romans 1, Paul sees the problem as abandoning the created order.

So, what does this mean? What it means is that Paul does not seem to link homosexual sex to some first-century form of idolatry. When Paul talks about idolatry, he’s referring to a idolatry 2general turn from Creator to creation exhibited in Genesis 3. Paul therefore seems to be using homoeroticism as a symptom of the Fall of mankind, not the byproduct of Roman idolatry.

This is why Paul goes on to list a shotgun of sins in 1:28-32. He’s not saying that envy, covetousness, murder, slander, and other sins are only wrong if they are connected with idolatry: You can murder all your want, but just don’t bow down to Zeus when you’re through. What he’s saying is that all of these sins are byproducts of the Fall—turning from the Creator to creation.

Still, I keep reading interpreters who say that Paul does not have creation in view. For instance, Matthew Vines, whom many consider to have made the best biblical argument against the traditional view, tries to show that the terms “natural” and “unnatural” have nothing to do with Genesis. He says: “It’s commonly assumed by those who hold to the traditional interpretation that these terms refer back to Genesis 1 and 2, and are intended to define heterosexuality as God’s natural design and homosexuality as an unnatural distortion of that design.” Vines goes on to argue (with little historical evidence) that “nature” refers to one’s own personal disposition, not God’s creational intention. However, he ignores the close connection between “natural” and “unnatural” right there in Romans 1. Whatever we make of the terms “natural” and “unnatural,” we can’t ignore that Paul uses these terms on the heels of the creation account and Fall in Genesis 1-3.

To sum it up, the idolatry mentioned in 1:23-25 is not a specific form of idolatry in the Roman world, but humanity’s general turn from their Creator to the creation. So, contrary to what I used to think about Romans 1, I don’t see clear reason to link the type of homosexuality in Romans 1 to a specific idolatrous form of it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What am I missing?