As I discussed in an earlier post, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a very interesting lecture on reading the Bible that included a brief discussion of Romans 1's discussion of same sex relationships. Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has posted a response from a conservative point of view. Regardless of your perspective on these issues, the entire piece is worth a close reading. The response offers a very detailed critique. I only have room to offer some highlights:
Let us begin by affirming that Paul in his letter to the Romans was emphatically not telling believers in Rome. Paul was not telling the Roman Christians to avoid passing judgment on fellow believers who actively engage in sexual immorality of an extreme sort, including homosexual practice. To the contrary: When Paul next used the term “sexual impurity” (akatharsia) in his letter (6:19), a term that he used elsewhere in Romans only in 1:24-27 to describe homosexual practice, he did so in direct address to the Roman believers. He reminded them that believers in Christ are no longer “slaves to sexual impurity,” for to continue in such behavior was to engage in acts of which they should now be “ashamed” (echoing the shame language that dominates Rom 1:24-27 regarding homosexual practice). Such acts, he says, lead to death and the loss of eternal life (6:19-23; compare 1:32). . .
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Again in Romans 13, Paul makes clear that sexual impurity is definitely not one of the matters of ethical indifference, like diet and calendar issues, that later in 14:1-15:13 Paul will warn believers against judging fellow believers for. Paul insists in 13:13-14 that, in view of the coming day of salvation and judgment, believers “lay aside works of darkness” such as “immoral sexual activities and licentious acts” and thereby to “make no provision to gratify the sinful desires of the flesh.” The Greek word for “immoral sexual activities” is koitai, which literally means, “lyings” or “beds,” a term that obviously links up with arsenokoitai, “men lying with a male,” in 1 Cor 6:9 as a particular instance of an immoral “lying.” The Greek word for “licentious acts” is aselgeiai, which refers to a lack of self-restraint with respect to refraining from prohibited sexual behaviors. This takes us back to the discussion in Rom 6:19-22 where Paul insists that believers stop putting their bodily members at the disposal of the kind of “sexual impurity” cited in 1:24-27, which makes them slaves of sin and lacking in sexual self-restraint. If Paul had wanted his converts to stop passing judgment on fellow converts who were engaged in unrepentant sexual immorality then he would have been a monumental hypocrite, inasmuch as he himself regularly made such judgments (we’ll see more in a moment). It is far more likely, though, that Williams has misinterpreted Paul than that Paul was a monumental hypocrite, in my opinion.
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Partly what this boils down to is this: Williams does not regard homosexual practice as a particularly significant sexual offense, if even an offense at all. (I have read in the press that he may have moderated or even changed some of his earlier strong support for homosexual practice but the evidence for such a change is at best conflicting.) For I can’t imagine Williams arguing that it would be inappropriate for the church to split over the issue of, say, ordaining bishops who were in committed sexual bonds with a parent, full sibling, or adult child. I suspect that in such a context he would never introduce issues such as ‘judgmentalism’ or self-righteousness or divisiveness on the part of those who opposed ordination of such. Yet neither he nor anyone else who talks in this way has made a convincing case that Paul would have viewed loving and committed same-sex intercourse involving people “oriented” to such behavior as a significantly lesser offense than adult, consensual, and loving incest of the first order. Until he or anyone else makes such a convincing case, no basis exists for arguing that severing ties with a schismatic Episcopal Church of the United States of America would be an unfaithful, self-righteous, and anti-Pauline act. Indeed, the truly anti-Pauline act would be a business-as-usual approach to a renegade body that endorses sexual immorality among its leaders.
I think that there are several possible responses to this very well-written article. First, I think that Professor Gagnon assumes, without much argument, that Romans 1 is discussing homosexuality. Augustine wrote that it referred, at least in part, to women having anal sex with men. And as I noted in my previous post, there is some scholarship that Paul is focused on sexual rituals of competing pagan rituals (and as I argued, the text of Romans 1 supports this view).
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Paul--at best--is merely assuming that homosexuality is sinful, but he never makes an argument or theological statement as to why this is so. It is an assumption made by Paul, not an ethical argument. Importantly, he made assumptions about slavery that we now reject as wrong. The issue is this--must we accept Paul's cultural assumptions? I think not. We certainly know a great deal more about same sex relationships in the 21st Century than the First Century.
Third, Gagnon ignores the historical context of Paul's condemnation of homosexuality. Paul could only condemn what he knew--and what he knew about homosexual acts of his time may very well be worthy of condemnation (men/boy relationships, for example). There is no evidence, however, that Paul knew of any couple in the type of committed same sex relationship that is at issue in current debates.