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

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.