LGBTQ+ Writing: Liberating Scripture #3

Today, we look at how Romans 1:18-32 is being liberated from misinterpretation. At its broadest base, Paul’s words have been used (as those in Leviticus) as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. That one-size-fits-all view has been changing, but the overall use of the text remains prohibitive. Indeed, Paul is against something, but it is crucial to see what it is.

Paul carried the Levitical prohibition into the Roman context—that is, he carried the Hebrew Covenant ethic (monogamy, sacredness, fidelity, and permanency) into the Christian Covenant. As in Canaan, centuries earlier, Roman culture had male temple prostitution. The cult of Isis was on Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage. [1] In this sense, the defining element for Paul (as with Leviticus) was idolatry. It was a sexuality practiced in the worship of false gods (Molech in Canaan and Isis in Rome) for self-serving purposes. And just as with a setting aside of male/female relationships for fertility religion in Leviticus, leading to good crops in Canaan, so in Rome it was a similar decision to worship “mortal humans, birds, animals, and reptiles” (Romans 1:23).

Scholars also think he was forbidding pederasty, which was included in temple prostitution but not limited to it. And as with Leviticus, such illicit sex destabilized the family.

Furthermore, it is likely that Paul was writing to prophetically call out the emperor’s sexual sinfulness, which included prostitution, pederasty, and more. [2] And again, as with Leviticus, Paul appeals to the Covenant as the defining and directing revelation of sexual morality.

The point is, sexual orientation in general and homosexuality in particular were not in Paul’s mind. He was thinking Covenantly and opposing egoic (lustful) and promiscuous sexual behavior.

Paul further confirms this in his use of the word ‘traded’ (CEB) or exchanged’ (NRSVue, NIV, ESV). The Greek word means a deliberate, temporary setting aside of one thing for another. What is being given up? Heterosexuality. Straight people were acting like gay people. In Rome, they did so through prostitution and pederasty. After their flings, they went home and resumed the heterosexual lives. Romans 1:26-27).Paul said this ‘exchange’ was wrong.

Finally, Paul uses the word “unnatural” to describe what God is against. God is against people acting sexually contrary to their orientation. In Rome, it was heterosexuals acting contrary to their orientation. Here is where the nonbinary creation enters the picture. In the spectrum of humanity (genders, identities, and orientations), it is wrong (unnatural) to engage in sex contrary to our orientation, and to do so in ways which violate Covenant qualities: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.

Where do these interpretations of Leviticus and Romans bring us? They lead us to affirm Covenant sexuality (minigamy, sacredness, fidelity, and permanency), and to declare that all people can live sexually in this way. They also bring us to reject sexuality that is idolatrous: violating the four principles previously named, and doing so in egoic (lustful) and promiscuous ways. “The Bible tells us so.”

[1] Robert Gnuse, “Romans 1:26-27 Condemns the Cult of Isis, not Homosexuality,” International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Studies, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2021, 33-41. This study includes other key factors which substantiate the point I am making.

[2] Sylvia Keesmat and Brian Walsh, ‘Romans Disarmed’ (Brazos Press, 2019), chapter 9, “Imperial Sexuality and Covenantal Faithfulness.”

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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