Responding to a Critique on Romans 1

A reader has kindly brought up a critique of the affirming perspective on Romans 1 from Christian ethical scholar Richard Hays, responding to an influential book by John Boswell in 1986. I believe it's well worth engaging with to see what we find.

Derek writes:

...this whole interpretation has been argued against (very convincingly, in my opinion at least) by Richard B. Hays as far back as 1986 (“Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1,” in The Journal of Religious Ethics 14, pp. 184-215). Hays’ article is very well worth reading, and space doesn’t permit me to quote his entire arguments, but some of the key points he makes include: para physin (contrary to nature) is not primarily about a Stoic idea of individual inclination, because para physin repeatedly shows up in Greek and (especially) Hellenistic-Jewish literature as a pejorative stock phrase to describe homosexual behavior, without regard to inclination. Paul is indeed setting up a familiar Jewish argument, but not to completely disagree with it. Quite the opposite – 1:18-27 is the set of premises upon which he builds the conclusion (“Therefore” in 2:1) in chap 2 that the Jews are without excuse! At least the pagans were led to their abominable acts (including homosexual practice) because of idolatrous notions about God and creation; what’s the monotheistic Jew’s excuse for committing the same atrocities?
All of this to say that there are important exegetical reasons not to agree with the affirming reading of Romans 1 that Lein proposes, and it is by no means a settled question that the Bible says nothing directly about homosexuality or gay marriage. 

My response follows:

Thank you for taking the time to read my work.

Before we begin I want to offer one caution in all this, because I'm susceptible to forget it myself, which is that for you and me this is a purely academic and intellectual exercise. We can dig into the study with impartiality, knowing that either conclusion will have little impact on our lives (although for myself showing support for the affirming reading has led to significant broken relationships in my conservative family, that's an order of magnitude below what is at stake for gay Christians). So while we dive in eagerly to intellectual and theoretical debate, our gay siblings in Christ are hearing us dialog about whether or not God condemns them to choose between lifelong celibacy or unfaithfulness which may lead to eternity in hell.

With that said, continuing on:

While I read Boswell, I primarily came across the "nature" argument from a much more recent lecture by scholar James Brownson ("Bible, Gender, Sexuality") hosted by the Reformation Project. Well worth watching, in my opinion. I had not seen Hays' response to Boswell before, so I'm grateful for the reference. The later part of the Romans argument is indebted to a excellent book by Robin Scroggs whom Hays references respectfully in his response.

I have three proposals for you to consider in response:

First: looking at Romans 1

Paul's setup has a beginning and an end. To take the middle seriously, one must take seriously that the actions he condemns are first generated out of actual idol worship (not metaphorical in the text!) in a deliberate abandonment of and rebellion against God, and cumulate in "every kind of wickedness". It is that holistically "debased mind" which Paul accuses the Jews of having equal capacity for even though they claim to be immune from this because they have the Bible, follow the moral codes, and don't worship idols. I do not see either the root "abandonment/rebellion against God" nor this final character in evidence in gay Christians like Matthias Roberts, Matthew Vines, or Bishop Gene Robinson. In contrast, I am astounded at how tightly LGBT people cling to God in defiance of the efforts of Christian theologians and churches to exclude them (50% identify as Christian!), and I am in awe of their gentle and vulnerable Godly character in response to those who continually dismiss them.

Now, picking up with Hays:

Hays writes: "In the context of Paul's exposition, the reference to homosexual behavior functions as prima facie evidence of the moral confusion and blindness which has come upon the human race as a result of its refusal to acknowledge God the creator"

Note that a plain reading of the text in this non-affirming way could read that God compels people into being gay because they first abandoned him. This could also lead one to speculate, as Hays appears to do, that wickedness and evil in the world is God's punishment on all of us for some people abandoning him and seeking same-sex relationships to replace him. That's not a characterization of God and his work in the world I can support, unlike Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham.

Hays writes: "By way of sharp contrast, in Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a "sacrament" (so to speak) of the anti-religion of human beings who refuse to honor God as creator: it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality, figuring forth through "the dishonoring of their bodies" the spiritual condition of those who have "exchanged the truth about God for a lie" (1:24-25). Thus, Paul's choice of homosexuality as an illustration of human depravity is not merely random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid image of humanity's primal rejection of the sovereignty of God the creator."

He clearly posits that being gay is a direct result of the rejection of God by the individual. Would you suggest that this represents all gay Christians?

Remember, Hays wrote this in 1986. We didn't have a lot of public examples of openly gay Christians leading what appear to be Godly and Spirit-filled lives at that time. We also were just at the beginnings of learning whether homosexuality is a choice or in-born. I believe the last 30 years have challenged those perspectives successfully.

Continuing on, much of Hays' critique of the use of Stoic "nature" relies on using anti-feminine, misogynist arguments from Greek philosophy, and "sex for procreation only, not pleasure" (or misapplying the story of Sodom) arguments from Jewish philosophy. Surely that's not the kind of support we want to be using in establishing Christian sexual ethics today?

Also, Hays develops the Stoic concept of nature quite strongly as being attached to the reality of the created world. As we've seen at various points in Christian history, we've had to adjust our theology and interpretation of Scripture because "nature" itself, through science, forces us to understand that created reality differently. I believe the clearest example is the debate over geocentricism and heliocentricism that I covered in my work. We must allow the observation of the world to speak to us as part of God's revelation, as Paul so clearly asserts in Romans 1:20.

Second: The Basis for Christian Ethics

Leaving aside this one passage, we would still need to wrestle with teachings like:

"I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." (Romans 14:14)

Yes, in context he's talking about eating food sacrificed to idols, but you might recall that this is one of only two prohibitions insisted on for faithful Christians by the Council of Jerusalem along with "sexual immorality". It was not a minor issue for the majority of the apostles!

"'All things are lawful,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up." (1 Corinthians 10:23)

This seems like Paul is more interested in what we could call "consequentialist ethics" rather than "deontological ethics" (see this article for more background). That is, we should not blindly follow rules for morality, but we should constantly evaluate our behavior to make sure it's generating good fruit in ourselves and others. The argument many are making convincingly today is that the fruit of non-affirming theology is depression, suicide, and violence while the fruit of affirming theology is life-giving.

After all, as Jesus said, all the Law and the Prophets (referencing the two major divisions of the Biblical canon of his time) hang on loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40). I would argue that moral codes are helpful shortcuts for communities of faith, but should never be substituted for the underlying principles which allow us to re-evaluate the effect of said codes in the lives of those we love (as Jesus appeared to do with various of his community's rules).

Third: Application

In effect, you've arrived at the same point I was at three years ago, from the same author (Hays) though I had not yet begun extensive research. That is, in a chapter of a Christian Ethics book covering homosexuality, he concludes that in all of Scripture there is one verse, one out of 31,200 verses in total, which condemns gay Christians to a life without the intimacy freely available to seek by the rest of us.

Does this seem like it would reflect the loving character of God or the unconditional acceptance of Jesus' ministry among the outcasts of society? That because of the interpretation of one verse (which is contested by many scholars) in a letter written by the Apostle Paul to an audience of Greek and Jewish people living in a culture two thousand years removed from today, in which Paul intended to address a much larger problem not set up a complete code of sexual ethics, we must insist for all time that our gay siblings in Christ never fall in love and marry?

Bearing in mind how many times through the centuries we have listened to the challenge of the Spirit speaking through the lives and experiences of the humans around us to come to new conclusions about our faith and Scripture, can we at least allow enough room on this issue for gay Christians and allies to claim an equal amount of integrity and devotion in following God in this way?

Hays relates in his chapter how he mourned and cried with a dear gay friend as he died of AIDS, but was unable to release him from this interpretation. I believe the example of Christ should instead compel us to allow compassionate hearts to overrule dogmatic heads as we encounter the Spirit in those around us.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
— 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

God isn't changing — we are

I've started reading a new ongoing series of posts about the Bible and same-sex marriage from Graeme Codrington at It's been really good so far. Here's a quote from the one I read this morning:

I believe that we should make a change with regard to our acceptance of homosexuality and affirmation of same sex marriage. Not because the Bible has changed, or God. But because it is an obvious progression of the radically inclusive message of Jesus, and because we’re discovering that we were wrong.

Here's his summary of this particular entry:

  • God may or may not change over time, but our understanding of Him definitely does.
  • God’s instructions to His people have adapted over time, and will continue to do so.
  • There is a redemptive arc to history, as God keeps pushing His people to be ahead of, and counter-cultural to, the contexts they live in.
  • Change is not bad. In fact, it is an essential element of Christian life.

Listening to Christian Moms with LGBT Kids

John Pavlovitz wrote a post about spending time in a support group for Christian mothers of LGBT kids. He asked them to give him statements that they would like to share anonymously with others about how they have been treated by their churches. Here's a few excerpts – go to his original post for the rest:

They need to know that since my daughter came out, I’ve never been stronger in my faith, have never done more Bible study and reading, never been “closer” to God in every other way, but yet have never felt so alienated and distanced from my brothers and sisters in the Church. My comments have been dismissed, my absences have been ignored, and the “Amens” in church have grown louder and more frequent whenever there is a remark against homosexuality. I need support from my church family, without all the negativity.

And another:

My son has a kind, gentle heart, and a huge sense of justice and morality. He loves people with patience, and with all the traits of the famous Corinthians passage on Love. He has so much to offer to this world, and has a passion to make it better for others. As a child brought up in the church and someone who gave his life to Christ, he denied being gay all his life, and it literally almost killed him. To deny his gayness is to deny his life. That is an inseparable part of him. He either will live as a gay man or die. There are no choices. Being gay isn’t a choice anyone would make. It’s slow and painful acceptance of a reality you wish were not true.

How do we answer these people, in the manner Christ would? Maybe it starts with listening.

A Two-way Conversation with Third-World Christianity

Jonathan Merritt wrote an excellent article last week about the more traditional and conservative American churches pointing to third-world Christianity in the debate over homosexuality. This is a topic that is huge in Anglican circles (which I am part of) right now because of the divide between the current Episcopal Church and the former parishes who split off under African leadership over this social issue.

The two major items Jonathan writes about are:

  1. Are we comfortable with how extreme many of these countries are on this issue (often calling for civil punishment up to execution for all homosexual persons)?
  2. Are we willing to listen to other things that these Christians may have to say to us Americans on topics like colonialism and missionary abuses in the past? Or are conservative Christians simply using their international brothers' and sisters' voices on this one topic for their own advantage instead of engaging in true dialog?

It's also important to remember how influential the conservative, fundamentalist worldview was in the last 100 years of missionary work. That we cannot point to these mission fields and say the Christians there are speaking on pure, culturally-unaffected faith, because they largely inherited the same biases and perspectives as their local missionaries.

I'm also reminded of a story told by pastor and author Brian McLaren about an attendee of his church breaking down in tears after being invited to participate in communion. You see, this attendee was from a conservative church in Africa, and because he was the child of a third wife (polygamous marriage before conversion), he was denied communion in that church. Is that the variety of Christianity, from any country, which we want to uncritically embrace? Not all third-world Christians have these perspectives of course, just as American Christians have differences. We're simply saying that it may not be a good argument to point uncritically at a non-American group of Christians to somehow make the case that American non-conservative Christians are apostate.

Jonathan says it better, so read the full article at:

Gay Marriage vs. the Church?

An Opinion piece in the New York Times this past weekend is well worth reading. The author, William N. Eskridge Jr. (a professor at Yale Law School), makes the case that the Judeo-Christian heritage is not uniformly against gay marriage nor sees homosexuality as a sinful state or set of sinful actions. Like it or not, many Christians are on each side of this issue, most claiming Scriptural support for their arguments.

This week, committed gay couples seeking the right to marry will take their case to the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges are supported by amicus briefs submitted by a variety of institutions and people, from the former N.F.L. player Chris Kluwe to Ken Mehlman, a past chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Religious groups are on their side, too. While several prominent religious organizations have filed briefs in opposition, leaders in the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the official organizations of conservative and reform Judaism, and more than 1,900 theologians signed a brief urging the court to legalize same-sex marriage.

In the process, he briefly outlines a few of the points I've written about on this site. From discussions of how conservative Christians have gotten interpretations wrong in the past (on race in particular) and how the current debate is not as clear from the texts as we might like today, it seems like a reasonable case to support giving freedom to those we may not agree with.

My point is not that the Bible must be read in a gay-friendly way; it is simply that the Bible is open to honest interpretations that refuse to condemn or that even embrace such families. I am doubtful that Scripture speaks with one voice about how to define civil marriage.

Presbyterian Church (USA) officially supports same-sex marriage

As a follow-up to the last post, the Presbyterian denomination representing 1.8 million members voted to modify their marriage definition to include gay couples.

You can read about this in the New York Times.

As the article states, there are now a number of large denominations which fully embrace gay couples in marriage:

  • Presbyterian Church (USA)
  • Episcopal Church
  • United Church of Christ
  • Quakers
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches
  • In Judaism, the Reform and Conservative movements

A conservative evangelical Christian reader may see this list as confirmation that only "liberal" groups support gay marriage. However, for me it is encouraging to see the variety of support across different groups who all base their faith on the Bible and a shared Christian tradition. We even have supporters in Judaism who share the majority of our Scriptures (the Tanakh or "Old Testament"), including those passages which many say are against homosexuality (which I discuss in my essay).

A PC(USA) Perspective

One of the blogs I've followed recently had an update about same-sex marriage from a Presbyterian Church (USA) perspective. I thought it was worth sharing here.

The author, a PC(USA) pastor, addresses the following "Common Arguments Against LGBTQ Rights and Inclusion", in brief form:

  • “Homosexuality is an abomination”
  • “Homosexuality is the ‘sin of Sodom,’ or is ‘sodomy’”
  • “Same-sex marriage is just like, or will lead to acceptance of, pedophilia and/or bestiality”
  • “Homosexuality is just like, or will lead to acceptance of, incest and/or polyamory”
  • “Homosexuality is unnatural”
  • “Homosexuality is dangerous and/or unhealthy”
  • “Homosexuality is a choice”
  • “Sexual orientation can be changed, specifically with ‘reparative’ therapy”
  • “Same-sex marriage damages society and/or traditional marriage”
  • “Paul condemned homosexuality”
  • “Blessing same-sex relationships makes it harder to work with churches in the rest of the world”
  • “The Bible says that homosexuality is a sin”

Since I chose to focus so closely on just the Scriptural arguments against gay marriage, I didn't cover many of the topics above. If you read my essay and thought to yourself, "well, what about X" from the list above, you may find the linked post helpful.

"TL;DR: homosexuality is not an abomination, and is not Sodomy nor the ‘sin of Sodom'; it is nothing like pedophilia, bestiality, incest or polyamory; homosexuality is natural, safe, healthy; sexual orientation is not a choice, cannot be forcibly changed, does no damage to society or traditional marriage; Paul did not condemn homosexuality, the Bible does not call it a sin; allowing same-sex marriage might make it harder to work with other churches and organizations, but so do a lot of things that are right."

Interview with Southern Baptist Pastor Danny Cortez

Southern Baptist Pastor Danny Cortez recently came out in support of gay marriage for Christians, after a multi-year process of studying and processing. He and his church are now attempting to make a "third-way" path, accepting into leadership both those in same-sex relationships and those who believe that this is wrong. For this stance they were removed from the Southern Baptist Convention.

He was interviewed last fall, and I was struck by the following passage in particular:

I think too often we look at the LGBT people as an issue. We look at our theology from a petri dish trying to analyze them and fix them.  So what I’ve told people is that we have to make a distinction between the scientist and the medical doctor, which is analogous to the theologian and the pastor. As a doctor, the theologian’s kept telling me “keep giving this medicine.” But this one application of scripture is literally killing people and you keep telling me to give it. As a doctor, I’m telling you it’s not working. You guys might know the “Science” but when you bring it to real life practical situations—it doesn’t work. It isn’t bearing good fruit. Because of this, our interpretation needs to be recalled and re-evaluated until it no longer does harm,  because that is the end of the commandment.

What do you think about this analogy between pursuit of knowledge and pursuit of healing? Is there a pattern we can see in Scripture of how Jesus deals with seeming contradictions between "knowledge" and "love"?

You can watch Danny's entire hour-long sermon below, where he explains why he changed his mind in front of his entire church.

A Wedding in Oklahoma

Marriage equality came to Oklahoma recently. A lesbian couple who had been together for seven years decided that they wanted more than a marriage license, they wanted a wedding.

Monica Hesse from the Washington Post wrote about their plans and preparation. Not to "push an agenda", but to celebrate their relationship with as many friends and family who would be willing to attend.

“Sometimes I do feel like an abomination,” Tracy said, a few minutes later.

Diana shook her head. “Don’t. Don’t you ever let people say you’re an abomination.”

“There is no deeper question that they can have about me that I haven’t had about myself,” Kathryn said. “I’m a gay Christian in Oklahoma — there is no greater cosmic joke than for me to be a gay Christian.”

“You have to understand,” Tracy told her family, finally. “For some of these people, we’re the only gay people they’ve ever met.”

While reading this I was simply struck with how much contrast there is between this story and the typical concept of same-sex relationships in the minds of many conservative evangelical Christians. They're simply people, like all of us, wanting the same things we all do – love, family, and faith.

 — Read the story in the Washington Post.

It Takes a Long Time

If you have come to this website new to the conversation, bear in mind that for most this re-consideration takes a long time.

Tradition, religion, culture – all of this is deeply ingrained, and it is very important to take this process seriously and slowly. Most people I've talked to from an evangelical Christian background, who have changed their minds, take around 5 years to wrestle with their theology and the Scriptures around gay marriage.

My personal journey was shorter due to a circumstances of both intensity and vast amounts of time I allocated to studying on this subject and others. Which most are practically unable to do. So, if you read this and you're still very skeptical but intrigued, that's just fine. God works on his own pace.

And not everyone will. Tony Campolo is a good example, firmly Side B for years even while his wife takes Side A. That's ok, if you can help us all make sure that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters experience the love we say we have for them, even if disagreeing. And we can only know if they experience that by living with them, loving them, and listening to them. And believing their sincerity and heart in what we hear.

Worth a Read: "Distorted Love"

Back in October (2014) John Pavlovitz wrote a post that I've recently re-read. It's worth carefully thinking through. His description of the "fruit" of our traditional theology (as Jesus pointed out, we will know false teachers by the fruit of their teachings) is sobering. This is real.

Read the brief excerpt below, or click through for the entire short article on his blog.

Distorted Love: The Toll Of Our Christian Theology On The LGBT Community

Love doesn’t always look like love.

Scores of people from all over the world have shared with me their devastating stories of exclusion and isolation, of unanswered prayers to change, of destructive conversion therapies, of repeated suicide attempts, and of being actively and passively driven from faith, by people of faith.

Church, this is the reality of our theology on homosexuality.

This is the cost of our religion to the LGBT community. More accurately, it’s the cost of our religion to LGBT human beings. This is the painful collateral damage that comes when we see principles and ignore people; when we refuse to give them the dignity they deserve.

Apparently Love does hurt; really, really badly.

Reading this article (and similar ones) was the final straw in pushing me over to supporting full inclusion and support of gay couples in our Christian churches. When asking the question "Where is there more harm?", it is clear for me that the real daily fruit of exclusion is so much worse than any potential problems on the other side.

I have to believe that God is love, and walk in that love not in fear. The life of Jesus shows us how we as humans should live in God's pattern here and now: including, loving, and standing up for the outcast, persecuted and rejected by society and religion.

For those who cannot affirm marriage at this time, consider at least being open to the fact that many Christians who love the Bible see no problem with it, and use your ears more than your lips for a while. As I've heard a couple of people put it recently, Jesus talked about those who have ears yet cannot hear – not those who have lips but cannot speak!

Again, read the full article, and comments, on the original author's site.

Two Large Evangelical Churches Support Same-Sex Marriage

In the past few weeks two large evangelical Christian churches have announced that they are fully affirming their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in ministry and life, including supporting marriage for all.

The pastors both express the pain they have personally experienced and seen around them during their long explorations and conversations around this very tough question in the church today. They appeal to their congregations to remain united in love, even while disagreements continue. They understand and sympathize with those who cannot accept gay marriage, and they do not call them haters. Yet they believe that they are compelled by their faith to accept all people in full inclusion to leadership and all sacraments of faith and life.

These churches are Grace Pointe Church in Nashville and EastLake Community Church in Washington State. Their sermons are available to watch online.

Five responses for Christians who think support of same-sex marriage is damaging

I found an article on the Gospel Coalition yesterday that was written for someone like me – a Christian who is affirming same-sex marriage based on the Bible. I thought the author, Kevin DeYoung, asked some good questions that others might have, and it is worth a brief response. 


Today I wrapped up the first-draft of my little project enough to make it "live" on the internet. I hope my 150 hours of study and writing, and the ~38,000 words that came out of the process, are helpful for some people out there. 

I know it is very hard for many people in the conservative Christian community to accept that these questions can even be asked. All I ask is that you take the time to listen, and keep an open mind.

Please let me know if you have specific responses or questions. You can put comments in this blog section, or contact me on my author page. There is much more that can be said and debated, and I hope to do some of that here with post updates. I will also continue to update the main essay as I come across new information or perspectives.

God bless you and keep you, make his face to shine upon you, and give you peace. Amen.