Thursday, July 12, 2012

Romans Chapter 1

At Gay Pride this year, I had a chat with a woman who was giving out free King James Bibles.

I was kind of curious to see where she was coming from, what was motivating her to give free Bibles to homosexuals.  As it turns out, she indeed did think we were all sinners in particular need of her call to repentance.

We ended up having a chat about Romans chapter 1.  I think all the Christian Biblical arguments about homosexual relationships boil down to a few verses in this one chapter, particularly what Paul means by a Greek phrase that, in the King James version is translated as "natural use": phusikos chresis.  That term could be very properly translated, "instinctive sexuality."  Phusikos is related etymologically to the English word "physical," but is best translated "instinctive," hence "natural."  It would apply to those things which to us, in our physical being, are natural in the sense of being instinctive.  So Paul here in these two verses (26 & 27) is discussing individuals who reject or turn away from their sexual instincts.  I pointed out to the woman giving out Bibles at Gay Pride that, given that homosexuality is the natural, instinctive sexuality for gay people, the situation Paul seems to describe in these verses applies not categorically to gay people, but to heterosexuals who are so carried away by lust that they engage in sexual behavior that is unnatural to them.

Could it apply to gay people?  Absolutely.  It would apply to any people, gay or straight, who get carried away in the pursuit of sexual pleasure to the point that they exceed natural limits and natural desires. 

My current scripture study has taken me into the early chapters of Romans, so in the last couple of days I've had a chance to read the entire first chapter (and following) and reflect on it some more.  When you read this chapter in its entirety, you see that Paul is painting a picture here of individuals who are self-centered and ego-driven, who refuse to acknowledge God as the creator and center of all things.  Unbridled sexual lust is only one characteristic of such individuals.  Other characteristics include covetousness, maliciousness, envy, murder, debate, deceit, whispering, backbiting, spite, pride, boasting, disobedience to parents, lack of understanding, covenant breaking, lack of natural affection (hard-heartedness?), implacability, lack of mercy.

The picture that emerges is someone with a hard-hearted, self-centered approach to the world.  This, by the way, is the "natural man" spoken of in scripture, not to be confused with the "natural use" alluded to by Paul in verses 26 and 27.  The whole thrust of Paul's discussion here is to emphasize that we all fall short in this way. There are times in all of our lives when we think only of ourselves.  When we become impatient and let our anger get the better of us.  When we are argumentative, hard-hearted, and unmerciful toward those who offend us.  When we let ourselves be more driven by our lusts and our hungers than by love.

True love for our Creator would demand that we tame the ego, that we shift the center of our universe from ourselves to God and, through God, toward our fellow human beings.

Thus, interestingly enough, the very beginning of Romans chapter 2 begins with:

Therefore [this follows on Paul's argument at the end of Romans 1] thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

In other words, the impulse to judge and condemn others flows out of that same category of self-centered, hard-hearted attitudes that mark us as in rebellion against God.  So ironic, I guess, that this section of scripture is used so frequently and so harshly to judge and condemn gay people.  Of course, for gay people to turn it around and use it to condemn and judge conservative Christians would be equally ironic.

Or would equally well prove Paul's point.  It is this hard-heartedness, this eagerness to fight and condemn others that marks us all as in need of the mercy and grace of God.  If we fight over scripture, and use scripture to condemn each other, it is only proof of exactly what Paul is talking about here.


So a gay person reading this passage of scripture could respond to it a couple of ways.  Some can and do read it and see chapter 1, verses 26-27 as a categorical condemnation of all homosexuality -- even homosexuality that is expressed in accordance with our natural, instinctive sexuality.  They respond by disciplining themselves in such a way as to live celibate lives.  Or perhaps, the right confluence of circumstances and finding the right life partner allows them to successfully marry heterosexually.  Those paths, no one can seriously dispute, require discipline, patience, and faith, and require extraordinary selflessness.  In other words, they would represent the kind of repentance process that Paul describes here as essential.

But other gay people can and do read this section, and do not see it as a categorical condemnation of homosexuality, but as a condemnation of unbridled lust, and of that egotistical, self-centered attitude I've already described.  We may choose a loving partner with whom we make and honor a life-time commitment, and with whom we seek to live chastely and affectionately just the way loving heterosexual couples might.  In doing so, we are frequently judged and condemned by conservative Christians; we may suffer various forms of exclusion and discrimination in our churches.  For us, the challenge is to respond with forgiveness, patience, and kindness, all the while not judging those who judge us so harshly.  In a way, this is every bit as -- perhaps more -- "unnatural" than remaining celibate or living heterosexually.  For what is more natural than to respond to misunderstanding and judgment with anger and counter-judgment?

My point is, both ways of living as a gay person would be congruent with Paul's teaching in this passage of scripture.  Both ways would require the virtues of patience, steadfastness, selflessness, faith, hope and love that demonstrate that we have centered our lives around the worship of the Creator rather than "the creature" as Paul so aptly puts it here (vs. 25).

The possibility that different gay people would apply this scripture differently in relation to how they govern their sexual lives is allowed for in the Pauline understanding of proper devotion to God, which is conscience-centered and conscience-driven.

Paul argues in chapters one and two that even those who have not received God's law as revealed to Moses (the Gentiles) know God's law in their hearts.  It is our own, innate knowledge of right and wrong, Paul argues, that ultimately condemns us when we sin.  So we must exercise caution and heed our conscience, not harden it.

But where honest differences of opinion emerge, the highest law is to live in harmony, kindness and patience, being careful not to wrong one another by judging each other.


Anonymous said...

Hi John
I was hoping you could help me understand the anti-gay marriage beliefs of my Mormon family. I finally left the Church 20+ years ago after a long and unsuccessful struggle to integrate my gay and Mormon identities.
I left just prior to the issuance of the "Proclaimation On The Family". At the time this was presented as the consensus viewpoint of the First Presidency and the apostles and therefore official church policy. I was surprised to find this proclaimation hung and framed on some of my relatives' walls as if it was a piece of art or a great modern revelation from God. Which brings me to my question: Do Mormons consider this proclaimation to be "revelation"? If it is, then is it also scripture? What is the difference between scripture like Romans and non-scriptural revelation applicable to the entire church (if such a thing exists)? Before making the battle against marriage equality such a defining aspect of contemporary Mormonism, don't prophets, seers, and revelators, and even Christ Himself, owe His church some type of revelation? Or is this going to end up like the denial of the priesthood to blacks-- "Ooops, we can't seem to find any record where God revealed to Brigham or any of his successors that blacks can't hold the priesthood. We apologize for any hurt feelings or misunderstandings this may have caused!"
As a former Mormon, I don't understand why the viewpoint of Paul concerning gays should carry any more weight than some of the discredited beliefs of Brigham Young (Adam-God theory, etc.). After all, Paul was "just" an ordinary apostle in his day and not authorized to speak for the entire early church. Brigham on the other hand was a prophet and President of the Church.
You seem to gain something spiritual from the scriptures and keep up w/ these things more than me. To the best of your knowledge, has any prophet of any era or location actually gone to God in sincere prayer and asked Him if he approves of same-sex marriage? It seems to me they just read the same few verses in Leviticus (statutory mosaic law superseded by the atonement of Christ) and Romans Chapter 1.
I've always read Romans much the same way you do. Paul, like the people of his day, likely had no concept of a homosexual orientation. Homosexuality to him was merely one of a long list of sinful acts that if I read Chapter 1 correctly, are worthy of the death penalty (Romans 1:32). I have yet to find anyone who truly believes that homosexuals, backbiters, boasters and people who disobey their parents, etc., should be put to death. If not, how can you or anyone else pick and choose what verses to believe in as the authoritative word of God that applies to my life?
I sincerely have never understood the appeal of scripture;a belief in scripture seems to require me to abandon my sincerely held beliefs if they conflict with what someone else hase written in the past.
Sorry if this is a bit of a rant, but I really am interested in knowing if the Proclamation is considered revelation or even inspiration.

J G-W said...

Matt, as you likely know from growing up in the Church, deciding what statements of Church leaders are considered binding and definitive ("revelation") and what aren't can be challenging.

My impression is that most LDS consider the Proclamation on the Family as being at least as inspired as, say, Conference talks. Many expect it will probably some day be formally added to the Doctrine & Covenants as a special declaration or something of that nature.

However, at this time, it seems to have standing mainly as the Church's official statement on the family.

For what it's worth, many Church members I've spoken to don't see the Proclamation as anti-gay at all (though many have used it that way). Many look at it as mostly speaking to the situation of heterosexual families, and not really having much to say about gay families. The Proclamation itself acknowledges that not everyone fits into the "ideal" mold that is described in the Proclamation, and some people get some mileage out of that acknowledgment. For what it's worth.

My brother, for instance, has the Proclamation displayed in a picture frame on his wall. But he's very supportive of me and my husband.

Anonymous said...

great exegesis

I also go along with Matt; maybe Paul really did want to condemn homosexuality, but since his society probably did not make room for stable, monogamous gay relationships, his condemnation may apply more to promiscuity (of any kind) rather than the type of relationship that you and so many others have in our more tolerant society.

Duck said...

@ anonymous: for years, it felt to me, in the Church, the family proclamation was almost another "commandment". It was spoken about often, members were encouraged to have copies of the proclamation hanging in their homes, etc. etc. In Conference two Octobers ago, Pres. Packer gave "quite" a speech. He referenced the proclamation and again, made it feel like it was commandment. Shortly thereafter, wording about the proclamation changed, bringing it, as it were, to a lesser significance. I will do some research, to see if I can find the exact changes and inferences that were made at that time regarding the proclamation. If I am unable to, as I believe it now, the Proclamation is not commandment, but is issued as a guide. That is it- the wording regarding the proclamation said it was a "guide".

Which, personally, sent me into a bad place spiritually. All these many years, I felt like it had been "hammered" into members that the proclamation was "commandment" but was now being called simply a "guide". I felt like there were mountains between those two references, commandment and guide.

Anyway, that is my two cents worth. Do not know if I made the issue worse for you or helped in clarifying anything.

@ John: I love when you write about your studies in the scriptures. I often feel like changing what I am studying to what YOU are studying- you seem to have so many great insights into the scriptures, you think so deeply and so often on the things of the Spirit and I want to be more like that. Thank you for always being so willing and gracious to share what you learn from the scriptures. I love that you study so many issues and topics of the gospel. I, too, love the gospel and love studying it. Because of some health issues, the pain meds I am on sometimes rob me of my spiritual desires to study and be taught by the Spirit. I feel like I am missing out on some things.

Love to you and yours, always. Duck

J G-W said...

Thanks, Duck.

Just to clarify... What was revised (in the Ensign) was Elder Packer's talk, not the Proclamation. Elder Packer's talk would be the subject of a whole nother blog post.

In fact, the history and use of the Proclamation on the Family really does merit its own discussion.

Of course, there's nothing in the Proclamation that really qualifies as a "commandment." It's a statement of values. I guess a lot of the controversy has been over the extent to which the Proclamation has been used to justify anti-gay political campaigns or to make gay people feel excluded in the Church.

But I personally don't think the Proclamation is terrible. As a statement about the importance of family, it is quite good. I just don't think it really adequately addresses the situation of gay people. Also, I think there's more to say about gender and gender roles than what is presented in it.

I guess only time will tell whether it is elevated to the status of a "revelation," or whether it eventually gets replaced with a better, more inclusive statement as the conversation about homosexuality and the Church deepens and improves and becomes more inclusive.

The quality of that conversation definitely seems to be improving... I really see signs that the Spirit is at work in the Church around this issue right now.

J G-W said...

santorio - There are two possibilities:

1) Paul was condemning something other than homosexuality as we understand it.

2) Paul was condemning homosexuality as we understand it, but he didn't have any idea what he was talking about.

I find the latter of the two possibilities highly improbable, because nobody in that period understood homosexuality as we understand it.

I'm not sure how a careful reading of this text would show anything but that Paul here was talking about someone who turns against his or her native sexual instincts... And as we both know, that's not what we're talking about when we talk about homosexuality.

It seems to me what Paul is actually describing here has its analog in our time in the swinger culture, fetishism, etc.

Andrew S said...

Thanks for the breakdown of the original Greek...I had heard of an argument SIMILAR to your "natural use" -> instinctive sexuality, but it didn't break things down in the same way. More people focus, if they focus on any part of the Romans 1 Greek, on other phrases.

J G-W said...

The English word "natural" is unfortunately pretty vague, so I think it is helpful to consider the original Greek phrase here, which is more precise.

Duck said...

P.S. I knew that the POTF had not been edited, and that only Boyd K Packer's speech had been. It was the wording they used in reference to the POTF that changed at that time from "almost commandment" to "guide".

J G-W said...

Duck, thanks for the clarification!