Monday, June 11, 2012

Textual Healing: Why Romans 1:26-27 is Not the Text for Condemning LGBTQQ

Please read slowly and carefully. This essay deals meticulously with biblical texts and requires attention to details. As always, this important topic requires reading with an open mind and heart.

Romans 1:26-27 is one of the more frequently cited biblical texts to support the oppression and exclusion of the LGBTQQ community. But this conventional interpretation has tragically become the very antithesis to what the Apostle Paul originally intended. In its original context, Paul's words are part of a brilliantly crafted argument to expound the radical grace of the Gospel and its power to unite both Jews and Gentiles (today we should hear "Christians and non-Christians"). In the final analysis, Romans is about one thing: the power of the Gospel to generate and sustain a grace-filled community of sinners.

The words of Rom. 1:26-27 are quoted often to condemn gay persons. In doing this, however, the verses are taken out of the context of Paul's overall argument in chapters 1-3. It is therefore imperative that we understand the greater context of Paul's argument and the role that verses 26-27 play in his entire point.

The context for Paul's argument is 1:16-3:20. It all begins with Paul's proclamation that the Gospel is for both Jews and Gentiles: "It is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek," (1:16). When one reads Jew/Gentile in Paul, these two categories indicate all of humanity. With this introduction Paul lays down two essential elements of the Gospel: 1) the Gospel is universal (for everyone); and, 2) the Gospel is about fellowship (uniting Jew/Gentile). 

Following this introduction Paul begins a longwinded attack on various human behaviors (1:18-32). It is here that Paul describes women and men engaging in "unnatural relations."  However, what matters most is not what behaviors are being condemned, but rather who. While this passage is commonly read as if Paul is condemning all of humanity, he is not.  Here Paul is speaking about the Gentiles. This is made clear by Paul's words in 19-20:  "For what can be known about God is plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." (Such language would not be used to describe the Jews who knew God through God's revelation, salvation, and election)

Reading this passage as a description of the universal human condition is a common mistake. Paul is not just listing sins, he is describing the Gentiles in order to make a larger point. Verses 29-32 are not simply a list of bad behaviors, it is Paul's exaggerated condemnation of the Gentiles through a rhetorical device called a "vice list." NT scholar Craig Keener notes, "Ancient writers sometimes employed 'vice lists,' as here... Paul here sets up his readers for chapter 2," (IVP Background Commentary: New Testament, 417). It is imperative that we understand Romans 1:26-27 as part of Paul's setup for what is to come in Romans 2.

To further understand how Paul set up his argument in Romans 1:18-32 we must look at a fascinating parallel between Romans 1-3 and the Wisdom of Solomon. The Wisdom of Solomon is a deuterocanonical book that may be found in the Jewish canon, as well as many Christian Bibles. The book was popular around the same time as Paul's epistle to the Romans (First Century C.E.) and most scholars believe that Paul made intentional parallels with it. The following insights are taken from an article by Everett R. Kalin, although Keener also notes that "Paul's argument is similar to one in the Wisdom of Solomon," (Keener, 416).

In his article "Romans 1:26-27 and Homosexuality," Kalin explains that "some of the key themes and specific turns of phrase in Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 are so close to what Paul says in Rom. 1:18-32 that we might even imagine him having that text before him (mentally if not physically) as he wrote." Put simply, Paul's words in Romans sound almost identical to the words in another Jewish Scripture. To help the reader understand the parallels between Romans and Wisdom of Solomon I have created a chart. (see below, click to enlarge)

So why is this important? It is important because the two texts are almost identical in the "A" stage of their arguments, but in the "B" stage they are not. The above chart shows the "A" stage of each text's argument: the Gentiles should have known God but they did not and so they worshiped idols and God gave them up to immorality. This sets up what the authors really want to say in stage "B." The significance, however, is that Paul's "B" is unexpectedly different.

For the Wisdom text, the "B" of the argument makes clear "how differently God has treated those idolatrous Gentiles and us Jews and how different we are from them," (Kalin, 428). The main point in Wisdom's "B" is that the Gentiles are immoral and different, while the Jews are righteous and loved by God. This frame of thinking was common in the Judaism of Jesus' day; but it is not what Paul proposes in Romans 1-3.

What does Paul propose? Unity, fellowship, and the grace of the Gospel! The "B" stage in Romans is found in 2:1-3:20 and here again Kalin is helpful: "In 2:1 he turns to those who dis-approve of the Gentile's evil, in contrast to those in 1:32, who approve of it. One would think that for Paul that would be a step in the right direction; he, after all, disapproved of it too. But, on the contrary, he makes of this disapproval a judging of 'the other,' since the judge is doing the very same things.... Paul springs the trap, drops the other shoe, and offers a totally different "B": 'You too are without excuse' (anapologeitos) - the exact same word used of the Gentiles in Romans 1:20!" (Kalin, 428). I have created a figure for the "B" arguments as well.

Paul's use of the Wisdom of Solomon text is a brilliant strategy to lure the self-righteous into thinking that they are better than the immoral Gentiles. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome would have heard Paul's "A" as prototypical Jewish thinking. But while Jewish Christians probably expected a "B" like Wisdom, Paul instead offers the Gospel truth in his "B." 
Imagine Jew and Gentile hearing the reality-altering truth of the Gospel: all of you are undeserving of God's grace (3:9). Only God is righteous! It is God's grace, God's love, God's gift, God's righteousness, and God's justification (3:24-26). It's not about you or your morality, it's about God
That Paul makes the effort to craft such a clever, rhetorical trap reveals the emphasis of his argument. It is not the immoral Gentiles that he condemns, it is the self-righteous and exclusive Jews. This point is emphasized in 2:8 when Paul lambasts "those who are factious." This word ἐριθείας indicates those people who are bias toward their own social group at the expense of others. Like Jesus, Paul's major condemnation is reserved for those who think that they are in the moral majority. Paul's condemnation is for those who draw boundary lines to separate themselves from the supposedly immoral. (The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the behavior that had Jesus crucified outside of the city walls as a basphemer.)

The point of Romans 1:18-3:20 is to realize that all of humanity is united in sin. This is the true reality revealed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The morally exclusive communities that we attempt to construct are false realities. They are, as Margaret Alter put it, a "politic of holiness." Paul's argument in Romans 1:18-3:20 traps these groups in their self-righteousness and ideological idolatry. Both Jew and Gentile are guilty of attempting to construct their own reality through idolatry. This is what Paul means when he writes that the Jews do "the very same thing," (i.e. idolatry). But the reality of the Gospel shatters idolatry and all of our factious behavior. 

What, then, does Paul offer instead of this factious behavior? After all, Romans 1-3 is just the beginning to Paul's letter and it too sets up a larger point to be made. Upon this foundation Paul proceeds to expound the power of the Gospel to generate and sustain a grace-filled community of sinners who have been saved by Christ. Kalin argues that Paul's "principle reason for the writing of Romans [is] to encourage members of various Christian congregations in Rome, divided over issues they see as vital to faith and life and worship, to welcome one another despite, and even before resolving, these differences (see Rom. 14:1-15:3 and especially 15:7)," (Kalin, 425).

Indeed, the point of Romans follows the point of the Gospel: to generate grace-filled community. But just as Paul begins his letter with an appeal to the immorality of all, I believe that we too must realize our shared brokenness in order to truly unite as a grace-filled community. Paul "sees the Gentiles as well as the Jews in the reflected light of that fire of God's wrath which is the fire of his love," (Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 33). Without the realization that we are all immoral, we cannot truly grasp the extent of God's grace to everyone. Indeed this is how grace truly operates: "In our decision concerning God's revealed grace we stand or fall according to whether we allow it to be grace, God's unmerited favour towards others and towards ourselves - or not," (Barth, Romans, 34). Without realizing that "we" are just like "them," we don't get the scandal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of God's grace to create a new community and a new world. 

Now, how might this translate to the contemporary church and the LGBTQQ community?  First and foremost, Romans 1:26-27 must be read in the original context of Paul's argument in 1:18-3:20. The passage's main purpose is not to condemn homosexuality, it is to condemn the factious behavior of the Jews. This means that those who use 1:26-27 to distinguish themselves from those described are committing the very act that Paul condemns in this passage! Those who quote Romans 1:26-27 as evidence for excluding or persecuting LGBTQQ are living examples of the "politic of holiness" that Paul intends to eradicate. They are the "hard and impenitent... who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness," (2:5,8). 
By understanding Paul's argument we may see that Rom. 1:26-27 is not the biblical text to cite when drawing moral dividing lines concerning LGBTQQ. Instead, this text is about the power of the Gospel to move beyond factious morality to a "Gospel morality" that promotes fellowship because of God's grace to all of us immoral people.
At this point a very important clarification is necessary before the reader misunderstands my interpretation of Paul. I do no think that Paul is saying, "Never judge or condemn immoral behavior." I have, in fact, read Paul's entire letter and am aware that he encourages followers of Christ to resist sin (chap. 6-8 especially). For it seems that Paul [given what he could know about human beings at his time] disapproved of the Gentile vices in 1:18-32. However, I believe that Paul is saying, "Do not exclude these brothers and sisters from your community. Why? Because you are just as immoral and because the grace of God is immeasurable." This interpretation fits the overall purpose of Romans.

Here also I shall take the opportunity to respond in advance to a likely refutation. In the spirit of my interpretation of Paul, the reader may ask, "Where, then, do we draw the line? Are we to welcome any/all behavior in our community in the name of grace?" This is an excellent question and the answer, I believe, is complicated. We must remember that grace does not jettison morality; nor the responsibility that it requires. I believe that both Jesus and Paul reveal a Christian morality whose primary goal is to generate and sustain a grace-filled community. This means that not all behavior is appropriate for Christian community. Murder, deceit, and verbal abuse, for example, are anti-community behaviors. They do not fulfill the Law as both Jesus and Paul taught to love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:31; Rom. 13:9). Such behaviors are immoral because they destroy community and the Gospel is ultimately about building community. As such, they are undesirable for Christian community and should be managed with love according to the appropriate context. It should be noted that to compare homosexuality to anti-communal behavior like murder is not only absurd, but tragically disrespectful. If one cannot see the colossal difference between one who kills and one who loves, then there is no hope for establishing a Christian morality at all.

At the same time, however, the Gospel reveals that morality alone is not enough. Relying only upon a set of rules or doctrinal guidelines will always fail because we are all immoral. Morality by itself inevitably leads to the factious politics of holiness and the exclusion of others. But this is the antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Genuine human fellowship is made possible by the grace of the Gospel. Only grace makes possible the fellowship of sinners. 

This, as I have shown, is the real argument of Paul found in Romans 1:18-3:20. Rather than a moralized diatribe against homosexuality, 1:26-27 is part of a jarring polemic against a sociological pattern that is far too common among religious communities. If we are to hear Paul today, we must ask ourselves which "B" argument we identify with. When it comes to issues concerning LGBTQQ, do we sound like those in Wisdom of Solomon: the self-righteous moral majority? Or are we more like Paul's description: without excuse, just like them, doing the very same things? As Karl Barth suggested, the Gospel of grace stands or falls on our ability to answer this question. Our answer determines whether or not we allow God's unmerited favor toward others and ourselves - or not. 

Christians who refer to this text in an effort to condemn LGBTQQ behavior no doubt take the Bible very seriously. But so do I. And I believe that taking this text seriously means reading it in its original context, both historical and literary. My hope is that this kind of reading might lead Christians to a kind of "textual healing" - a restoration of the text to a more faithful interpretation of Paul's letter. More importantly, I hope that the restoration of the text might also lead to the healing of our communities. It seems that this too was Paul's hope and his reason for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Christians in Rome nearly 2,000 years ago.


  1. Thanks for this Josh. Great work.

  2. Josh,

    As most of this is a theological argument, I can't necessarily add much beyond the basic assertion that I would fundamentally agree with the notions and conclusions that you propose.

    However, I did have a few historical/historiographical comments to add:

    1. When you start out by claiming that "this conventional interpretation has become the very antithesis to what the Apostle Paul originally intended", along with the claim that "Romans is about one thing" I think you fall into a hermeneutical pitfall. That is, authorial intent is prized as the primary control over the meaning of a text, giving it a singular meaning. I think that the historical background and such for Romans is important, but if you claim to have found the 'one meaning' behind Romans, located in Paul's intent, you mostly succeed in arguing in the same exact manner to those who claim that the "plain meaning" of Romans 1.26-27 is that gay persons are condemned. You argue that Paul is setting up a skillful rhetorical device that requires the full context of Romans 1-3 to understand (which I think is right on), but go on to push for this as the 'key to the kingdom' in a singular sense. Arguing for who understands Paul's 'original intent' correctly doesn't really change the terms of the conversation, and as we have no access to the historical Paul of Romans (which is also, rhetorically, a different Paul than that of Thessalonians or Corinthians) it becomes a bit silly to try and make definitive decisions as to his disposition and intent while composing (or more likely dictating) a letter. Which leads me to...

    2. What I think we can draw out from Romans 1.26-27 (more properly vv. 18-32) are some conceptualizations of Paul's logic and means by which he argues. You do so in a minor way by bringing in Wisdom of Solomon - but mostly as a kind of foil against which Paul argues. Remaining bound within the text of 18-32 really gives you precious little to argue with against those who claim that they understand the 'plain meaning' that is communicated here. Just as a minor example, it would be more convincing to draw out the mythological assumptions behind the notion of "idolatrous Gentiles" and "righteous Jews" in both Wisdom and Romans. This is a common theme that runs widely in Second Temple and Early Christian literature, and assumes a mythological background that I think most would miss when reading Romans for the 'plain meaning.' One can look to Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and Genesis Rabbah for some of the background - also see Stanley Stowers' "A Rereading of Romans" 97-100 for a nice, compact list of these 'decline of civilization' narratives. Bringing these two points together...

  3. [Sorry about the 2 parts, it was too long for 1]

    3. I think that we can claim that Paul operates with a very different logic, within a different world, and with a remarkably foreign set of assumptions to our own. Historical analysis is important in drawing this notion out. Paul's rhetorical set-up in Romans 1-3 does function differently than those cherry-pick verses 26-27 claim. I would fully agree that Paul doesn't seem to be concerned in particular with homosexuality - but, I think if we are going to be really honest, we'd have to admit that as a Jewish male of the 1st century, he probably found it fairly repugnant. Which is to say that if we truly want a theology that does not condemn homosexual behavior, we cannot also house the control of meaning within the intent of the original author. Instead, we really ought to recognize:
    (a) Paul's logic is different from our own, and his assumptions are ones which we no longer share, which is the portion able to be accessed by historical analysis and hypotheses regarding Paul's 'intent' (a better term might be 'thought-world'). But...
    (b) In the context of modern Christianity, we still have Paul's letter to the Romans, we still read it, and argue about its meaning. So, we are not interested in simply saying "it is foreign, consign it to the trash heap." Thus...
    (c) We need a way of reading Romans that doesn't rely entirely on 'Paul's intent' for understanding the meaning of the book. I think this is where good theologians have to come in (and I get to step out of the picture as a historian...). I think a lot of what you write here is exactly this, is it interpretation that takes historiography seriously, but does not remain consigned to Paul's intent - my argument in this comment is simply that you couch it too heavily in terms that toss you right back into the maelstrom of historical-critical hermeneutics blended with biblical theology.


    Postscript: I also think you are a bit unfair to the Jewish 'opponents' as you characterize them in Romans and Wisdom. See the recent dissertation out of Durham U by Jonathan Linebaugh titled "God, Grace, and Righteousness: Wisdom of Solomon and Paul's Letter to the Romans in Conversation" for an interesting discussion. I think it is published in free PDF online if you search for it. Also, in general on this topic, have you read Dale Martin's "Sex and the Single Savior"? If not, you should!

  4. Ryan,

    AWESOME insights. Thanks for responding. Thank you for pointing out my own mistake of asserting a univocal interpretation of the text. Although I never claimed to have found the "one meaning," I realize that my writing communicated that very message and I must humbly admit that my interpretation is not the only and only meaning of Paul's letter.

    Admittedly, you are too intelligent for me and I have to re-read this to understand everything you've written. Alas, some thoughts.

    As for the usage of Wis. Sol., I agree. It seems that Paul is only able to use the text as a referent because of the religious/cultural assumptions of his day. We would do well to understand this "world" a lot better before trying to read Paul's logic.

    Also, agreed that Paul, a good Jew, found homosexual behavior repugnant. Nevertheless, what I'm after is the implications that Paul's logic has for ecclesiology. This essay, truthfully, is not as much an exegesis as it is a primer for a view of Pauline ecclesiology. Know what I mean? What I really care about is what Paul seems to be doing with the Gospel and the "New community." But is this still an attempt to read Paul's intent?

    Can you explain more about what you envision for "(c)"? What would be a way of reading Romans that allows us to move past this conundrum?

    Thanks RK. Peace.

  5. "[T]hose who use 1:26-27 to distinguish themselves from those described are committing the very act that Paul condemns in this passage! Those who quote Romans 1:26-27 as evidence for excluding or persecuting LGBTQQ are living examples of the "politic of holiness" that Paul intends to eradicate."


    So I just got around to reading this; it's been on my to-do list since you published it.

    Thank you for writing this. It's a wonderful and careful exegesis. Thank you for illuminating the bigger picture and larger context. Thank you for clarifying Paul's original intent:

    The righteous need just as much (if not more) grace than the unrighteous.