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Marriage redefinition: What does Romans 1:26-27 really have to say?

(Update: I’ve written a fuller response on the ABC Religion & Ethics website)

Today, an article appeared on the ABC News website by Dr Robyn Whitaker, a lecturer in biblical studies at Trinity College Theological School, Parkville, Melbourne. The article is titled: “Same-sex marriage: What does the Bible really have to say?”. Bible with wedding rings (scholar's edition) Whitaker looks briefly at six key passages in the Bible that are relevant to the question of homosexuality. She argues that these passages cannot be used straightforwardly in the same-sex marriage debates, because they do not directly address the issue of same-sex marriage. She also argues that there are only a small number of passages about homosexuality in the Bible, compared to the many passages about other topics such as love and justice.

Close to the start of her article, Whitaker claims the following (emphasis mine):

What follows represents a summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue. …

She further writes:

Australian scholars are among leaders in the field when it comes to sexuality and the Bible. William Loader has written several books on the matter and this Anglican collection of essays is also excellent.

What caught my eye (and caused me to write this response) was Whitaker’s prominent reference to William Loader, whom she (correctly) cites as a very significant voice in biblical scholarship on this issue. I am currently teaching a class in Romans, and a few weeks ago I read a recent key article by Loader, in a top-level peer-reviewed journal, addressing one of the key passages in question: Romans 1:26–27. I found Loader’s article excellent in many respects and commended it to my students. It summarises many of the issues very well.

Having read Loader’s article, however, I was astonished at Whitaker’s claims in her ABC article. To put it bluntly, William Loader’s scholarly article directly contradicts the claims made by Robyn Whitaker in her ABC news article. Thus Whitaker’s claim that her article “represents a summary of critical biblical scholarship on the issue”, with special reference to William Loader, is far from accurate.

I’m aware of the pain that many people (including those close to me) feel over the issue of same-sex marriage. I know that many people simply want us to be silent on the matter, so that the pain will not be prolonged. Indeed, I’m sure that there will be people who feel that even my discussing this issue is a betrayal of their deeply-felt identity. However, I think it is important to get clarity on this question, so that those who seek a biblical view on the topic are not confused by the claims in the article. Silence is never ultimately a solution.

If you’d like a summary, you might like to scroll down to the bottom of this article where I answer Whitaker’s claims one by one. I also hope you see that while I see this issue as significant, I don’t see it as the most important thing in the world (for more on a Christian response to the debate, see this excellent short piece by Sandy Grant).

What Whitaker says about Romans 1:26–27

Whitaker states the following in her ABC news article:

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender. He claims this is a result of idolatry and uses it as part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God.

It is typical of the strong “them and us” rhetoric of the ancient world, serving a larger argument and is not a statement on sexuality per se.

As New Testament scholar Sean Winter summarises:

“Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation.”

What Loader says about Romans 1:26–27

Recall that Whitaker cites Loader, at the top of her article, as the key exemplar of Australian scholars who are “among leaders in the field”. Thus it is right to survey what Loader says in assessing Whitaker. The key article, published in February this year, is: William Loader, “Reading Romans 1 on Homosexuality in the Light of Biblical/Jewish and Greco-Roman Perspectives of Its Time,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 108.1 (2017): 119–49. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/znw-2017-0004

Loader’s view of Scripture

It’s important to emphasise that Loader does not necessarily agree with what Paul says in Romans 1:26–27. Loader has a particular view of scriptural authority which does not require him to affirm everything that Paul said. In true scholarly fashion, he is seeking simply to summarise what Paul actually says in Romans 1:26–27, using the best available scholarship. While many evangelicals (including me) will not agree with Loader’s view of Scripture, his view does have the advantage of freeing him up to simply read what the Bible says clearly, without the pressure to try to apologise for it in a politically charged climate.

Loader finds quite perplexing the measures that many evangelicals go to to avoid a clear reading of Romans 1:

In relation to those few view [sic] verses in Romans 1 where Paul condemns homosexual relations (1,24–28) it is extraordinary that what for him in the first century and for the recipients of his letter in Rome was the least controversial of themes and indeed the reason why he uses it, has become in the 21st century one of the most controversial, especially for those whose understanding of scriptural authority entails believing that biblical writers were always correct in what they said and what they assumed. For those of us whose understanding of scriptural authority does not entail such belief we can only stand and wonder at the extraordinary manoeuvres which have been undertaken to re-read Paul as not condemning homosexual relations at all. (p. 120)

Some key points

Loader seeks to read Romans 1:26–27 carefully and precisely, bringing in numerous references to other ancient documents that shed light on what Paul says. Here are some key points and quotes:

  • “In seeking common ground with his readers Paul uses same sex relations to depict human depravity. In doing so he uses many of the arguments familiar from ethical discourse in the Greco-Roman world of his time, but employs them within a Jewish frame of reference.” (Abstract)
  • “Paul is standing in a long [Jewish and Christian] tradition which associates sexual immorality and idolatry” (p. 124), including the prohibitions in Leviticus. A wide range of same-sex relations are condemned by various Jewish writers, including those between consenting adults.
  • Philo, for example, “is aware of claims that some are naturally homosexual, … But he emphatically rejects such claims and does so on the basis of Gen 1,27, that God created human beings male and female and by implication only male and female” (p. 126). The same is true of Josephus, and others.
  • “Nothing in these writings [1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10–11] suggests departure from the wider Jewish rejection of same sex relations rooted in the Leviticus prohibitions and the understanding of human beings as created either male or female” (p. 128).
  • “Paul sees the perverted state of mind, passion, and subsequent expression in acts as the outcome of exchanging what is true for what is false” (p. 130).
  • “The attempt by Boswell to re-read Paul as concerned only with heterosexual men acting contrary to their nature and not with homosexual men acting according to theirs introduces an assumption into Paul’s text which it is very unlikely that he would have shared. Not that such distinctions would have been unknown to him, as many have argued. On the contrary, Paul would doubtless have known such claims, even if in rudimentary form, whether he directly knew the aetiology proposed by Plato’s Aristophanes or not. He would, however, like Philo, have almost certainly rejected such a distinction as in conflict with Gen 1,27 and would have rejected all male same sex relations based on his espousal of the prohibitions of Leviticus. Like Philo, he may well have recognised effemination as a phenomenon, as his allusion to μαλακοί in 1Cor 6,9 suggests, but this was for him something blameworthy, not a natural state of being” (p. 147).

Loader’s conclusion

Loader’s conclusion is as follows:

There is a coherence in Paul’s argumentation. Assumptions about the nature of creation, male and female, and about what is prohibited, combine with views about the danger of strong passions leading people astray (in the wrong direction), honour and dishonour (measured by what pleases God), to enable Paul to invite the Roman hearers of his letter to sense common ground in condemning what they too would have condemned on the same basis. The basic assumption is that human beings are male or female, in our terms, heterosexual, as the creator intended, and anything other than that is a distortion which deserves condemnation. In this understandable system of thought there is no room for people in any sense being naturally homosexual in our terms. While Paul will have known of such claims, with high probability he would like Philo have rejected them.

One can read Paul with respect even though one may disagree with his assumptions, as today most people do who affirm that being gay is not a sign of perversion, whether they then still retain the validity of the Leviticus prohibitions or see them, too, as not applicable, as do I. (148–49)

Back to Whitaker’s claims

I’ll now briefly assess Whitaker’s claims about Romans 1:26–27, especially in light of Loader’s article (but I’ll add my own comments on the passage too):

1. Is Paul condemning “people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender”?

No – he is writing against those who swap what is natural for all humans based on God’s created order (male-female sexual relationships) for what is not natural for humans (same-sex sexual relationships). See Loader, above.

2. Is Paul claiming that this is “a result of idolatry”?

Yes – this claim is correct. Paul describes idolatry as swapping worship of God for worship of creation; and this is reflected in the “swap” of natural for unnatural relationships.

3. Does Paul use it as “part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God”?

No – this is not what Paul is arguing. Rather, this is one part of his argument that every human being is unrighteous, under God’s judgment, and in need of forgiveness. Ultimately his argument is that forgiveness can’t come by keeping God’s law but has to come through Jesus’ loving sacrificial death on the cross.

4. Is this “typical of the strong ‘them and us’ rhetoric of the ancient world”?

It’s actually quite subversive for its time, not typical. The passage in Romans has affinities to some Jewish documents that have a “them and us” view. However, Paul uses it to show that everybody is unrighteous, not just “them” (see Romans 2:1ff).

5. Is this “serving a larger argument and … not a statement on sexuality per se.”

Yes and no. Yes, it’s serving a larger argument. But no, that doesn’t mean it’s not a statement on sexuality. It’s a statement on sexuality that serves a larger argument.

6. Does Paul “share… a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity”?

This is only half true. Loader is more accurate: “In seeking common ground with his readers Paul uses same sex relations to depict human depravity. In doing so he uses many of the arguments familiar from ethical discourse in the Greco-Roman world of his time, but employs them within a Jewish frame of reference.” (Abstract)

7. Is Paul “simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation”?

No. He would have included this in his critique. See Loader, above.

(Note: I couldn’t track the quotation from Sean Winter down, and there is no link in the ABC article, so I have to take Whitaker’s word for it that this is what Sean Winter said).

(Update: I’ve written a fuller response on the ABC Religion & Ethics website)

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