Director’s Thoughts: Hermeneutics on Sin and Same-Sex Relationships

Introduction:

The subject of sin and same-sex relationships is an ever present one in the current Christian community. It has split churches and denominations. It has spurred personal and political conflict. It has become the defining theological issue of our time and is a constant source of anger, frustration, hurt and sorrow for many throughout the world. This forces important questions to arise, such as, “What do we do with this issue? Was it meant to be this important? How do we handle those we disagree with?” This study will begin to unpack these questions and hopefully start to lay out a path forward for us as Christians.

The goal for this study is twofold. First, is to take a step away from the politics and cultural presuppositions to understand this issue hermeneutically and within the confines of biblical truth. Second, is to attempt to remove the controversy of the issue through this hermeneutical study to better understand how and why people believe what they do, and how to understand theological difference. While this study will not settle or solve this issue completely, it will push for a perspective of love and understanding for others, specifically for those in the LGBT community.

In order to understand this we will first examine where this issue falls in terms of our overarching biblical theology. We will pinpoint and highlight the key verses on the issue followed by a basic hermeneutical deconstruction of those verses.  After which we will examine two perspectives, the traditional and progressive, in their best light. These are two of many perspectives, but they are ones that will help to understand both broad approaches. Finally, I will make a proposal on how to handle theologically grey areas such as this.

It is important to note that there are a number of other theological concepts tied to this debate such as the understanding/importance of marriage, whether there exists a creation order, a deeper understanding on the nature of sin and love, gender roles in Christianity, and so forth. This study may mention these ideas in passing, but cannot go into all of those in detail and will instead focus on the primary question, whether same-sex relationships are considered sinful.

The Primary Hermeneutical Text:

In deciding a hermeneutical issue like this, it is helpful and often necessary to pinpoint the primary text that considers it. The issue of homosexuality is rarely dealt with throughout the bible, and often only brought up in passing within a list of various other sins. The verses that ultimately stand out for contention as primary would be the two in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) and the one in Romans (1:24-27).

While the two in Leviticus are certainly more direct, they also have more interpretive problems with them for a number of reasons. First, is with the difficulties surrounding the Old Testament Law. The Law can be broken into three primary categories, the Moral Law, the Civil Law, and the Ceremonial Law. The Moral Law dealt with the base concepts and standards of holiness that God has for humanity. The Civil Law is the outworking of those standards within an ancient community, one that was meant to be distinct and separate from the other surrounding nations. The Ceremonial Law primarily deals with priests, sacrifices and the repentance of sins. When we move forward and examine Christ, we see how he handles all three of these categories. He fulfills all the roles of the Ceremonial Law (both priest and sacrifice), he obeys and upholds the Moral Law, but the one part of the Law he regularly challenges is the Civil Law. He often challenges this aspect because the religious leaders of his time have turned the Civil Law into the Moral Law. Jesus only maintains and reaffirms the Ten Commandments as the Moral Law, which he then summarizes within the three laws of love; love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself, and love each other. The issue then with the verses in Leviticus is that they fall within a section that only details Civil Law statutes, making them somewhat problematic to transpose onto today, or in making them the primary verses on the subject.

A stronger emphasis is, therefore, placed on Romans 1:24-27 as the primary verses in understanding this issue. Not only is it in the New Testament, reaffirmed by Paul after Christ’s sacrifice, it is one of the more detailed explanations on the subject. The question then is, what is actually referred to in these verses?

Exegesis of Romans 1:24-27:

There are four primary hermeneutical principles that go into interpreting any text, the Literary, Grammatical, Historical/Cultural, Theological. This paper will utilize these four principles to attempt to extract the original meaning and intent of the author. This is a process called “exegesis” which attempts to pull that original meaning out of the text and help develop the theoretical and practical theological perspectives that Christian denominations and individuals hold today.

Literary:

The Literary principle attempts to understand the verses within its genre of literature, including its unique style and literary devices, and to help find its context and how that context fits within the goal of the book.

We understand that Romans was a letter written to the Roman church for a specific purpose. That purpose for Paul is to preach the gospel to those in Rome. This is demonstrated by verses in both the opening and closing chapters of the book (Romans 1:15, Romans 16:25-27) along with numerous other references within the book. It is also demonstrated in the structure of the book which begins with sin and the fall, to redemption and then understanding the Christian life, which was a common gospel structure for the time it was written.

This is significant because Romans 1 is primarily dealing with the fall, and all the “sins” listed stem from that primary “Sin” of the fall, or the replacing of God with something else. This is what we get in 1:18-23, that although all humanity “knows God” to a degree, they suppress that truth and replace it with their own wickedness. This means that Paul is attempting to demonstrate and deal with “Sin” as the problem and with “sins” being the result.

It is only within the context of this abandoning and replacing of God that Romans 1:24-27 makes any sense. Then in the progression of Paul’s logic it is only relevant to make it clear that the Jewish community upholding the Law, in Romans 2, are just as guilty as the Gentiles who don’t know it in Romans 1, all to say that all people are equally flawed, and equally deserving of the grace found in the rest of the book. This means that once again, while this may be the primary verse on this issue, even within its own context and purpose it is a lesser support of a larger issue. In essence, the sins Romans 1 is less significant in Paul’s eyes than the rest of what follows in the rest of the book.

Grammatical:

The Grammatical principle seeks to understand the specific wording and clausal layout of the scripture in order to understand the meaning of individual words and phrases within its literary and theological context.

Romans 1:24-27 is divided into two primary sections, 24&25, 26&27 both transitioned by the term διό (dio) which means “for” or “therefore”. This transition marks the unfolding results of a particular strain of logic begun earlier, namely that in Romans 1:18-23. Each subsequent use of the transition then continues the chain of logic and is increasingly more reliant on the previous statement. Therefore, within this context as each section is the result of the more significant one that came before.

The key concept in this selection of verses is that God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to ἀκαθαρσίαν (akatharsian) translated as “impurity”. This term is more extensive than it originally appears. Its primary use refers to some of the cultural cultic activity of the time, the nature of which will be more expanded upon in the Cultural/Historical section.

Additionally, the uses of the terms σεβάζομαι (sebazomai) translated “worshiped” and λατρεύω (latreuō) translated “served” are interchangeable and also tie the language to a cultic temple setting, and both are related to specifically religious ministerial duties. These terms are so interchangeable that the word translated here as “serve” is even translated as “worship” in Romans 12:1.

The significance of the temple setting is further seen in the repetition of the terms ἀτιμάζω (atimaso) (verb) and ἀτιμάω (atimao) (noun) the root of which is translated as “dishonor” or “shame”. These terms are related to the shame of nakedness that Adam and Eve felt at the fall of humanity in Genesis 3. Yet in this passage it is turned on its head to be an positive use instead of a negative one. So instead of feeling the shame of nakedness from the fall, it is embraced and celebrated. This is once again related to the original important concept of replacing God with creature so that it is the creature that is worshipped, making what was originally shameful at the fall, shameless in its worship.

Finally, many of the verbs in this section are present active participles. This means that many of the actions are not related to something in the past but refer to a present and ongoing phenomenon in the immediate context of the Romans to whom Paul is writing to. In short, the language used carries with it a lot of cultic significance, specifically involving temple worship. It is all masterfully constructed as each use of the term and clausal structure relates to and reinforces the primary point Paul is making on the nature of “sins” in the cultural environment relating to the problem of “Sin” from the fall.

Cultural/Historical:

The language Paul uses draws strongly from the cultural and historical context of the Romans to whom he is writing. It was a time marked by slavery, humiliating mentorships, and temple prostitution.

It is also a time in which the male form was considered more beautiful and of higher aesthetic value than the female form, making the historical context of one man dominating another man through sex an act of status or temple worship. This is something vastly different than what could be considered a same-sex relationship today. Most sex acts of this nature were forms of idolatry, or often forced, violent, and/or degrading. While there were certainly men attracted to other men and vice versa, the concept of the modern same-sex relationship was not one that commonly existed then, nor what Paul seems to specifically be referring to within this passage.

When it comes to same sex relationships with women in this passage, it is a little less clear since less is known about lesbian relationships. Some suggest that this could be referring to the training and development of female temple prostitutes, or cultural rites activities. In any case, the context of this verse still maintains a cultic temple context and would include a lot of what has already been described above.

Theological:

The theological principle attempts to examine a book, or sections of scripture within the entire context of the bible and Christian belief. When examining the issue of same-sex marriage or relationships in the bible, there really is not a lot to go on.

From a biblical studies standpoint, homosexuality is only specifically mentioned in 7 verses throughout the entirety of scripture, and most of those are simply in passing. This is compared to over 300 verses regarding loving one another, or over 2,000 on money and the treatment of the poor, or even 42 verses on goats. In essence, the biblical authors did not seem to find this to be something to focus on as an emphasis, or an overly crucial issue for the majority of the gospel story.

From a systematic theological standpoint, it is even less important. All theology begins with God as its highest concept and pursuit for study. To understand God is first to understand him as Trinity, the perfect being and community. This perfection results in many of those factors we attribute to God, such as omnipotence, omniscience and so forth, but also results in His primary attribute – His perfect love which maintains that divine community. God’s righteousness is a product of His love (explained later), and it is only from here that we can see emerge the gospel narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This is the story in which God works His love and righteousness into a finite and flawed reality. The fall is invariably the less emphasized concept theologically as the other three indicate God’s ultimate purpose for humanity and for this world. The fall is “Sin” entering the world, affecting all of humanity and making it so no one could never save themselves. “Sin” being the product of the fall is primarily defined as putting anything else in the position that must be reserved for God alone. Therefore individual “sins” are actions that result from “Sin”. In understanding individual sins there are various listings one of which are the sins of sexual immorality of which homosexuality would be attributed to this list.

So, to briefly unpack the theological chain above, it goes, from God as trinity, to love, to holiness and reality, to the gospel narrative, to the fall, to “Sin”, to “sins”, to sexual immorality, to the attributing of homosexuality in that category. Each time you step down in this chain, the next concept becomes less clear, and more debatable. This is especially true when attempting to define individual “sins”. Another common example might be “drunkenness”. What constitutes “drunkenness” as a sin? Is it having “a drink”, “drinking too much”, or a “lifestyle devoted to drinking”? This is a debate that has raged on for centuries because defining exactly what individual sins is always debatable.

Therefore, while important culturally, the potential identification/definition of same-sex relationships as a sin is incredibly minor theologically.

Differing Perspectives:

Finally, we are going to look at two differing theological points of view in their best light before this study reaches its conclusion. For the sake of avoiding problematic language we are just going to title them the Traditional and Progressive views. To be clear, in each of these descriptions, I am arguing the perspective as if it is the one I hold for emphasis, not necessarily because it is what I believe.

The Traditional Perspective:

The traditional perspective has maintained a clear view that same-sex marriage is wrong and it bases this belief on a number of factors. This section is shorter because it simply needs less explaining.

First, is the perceived consistency of scripture on the issue. While there are certainly historical contexts to be considered, it doesn’t seem to do away with the fact that nowhere are these same-sex acts ever held in a positive light. Due to the lack of any contradicting scripture specifically on this issue, it seems that the bible doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

Second, is the created order. After man and woman were created God said to them “Be fruitful and multiply.” The natural manner of procreation is built into the physicality of a human beings makeup and it is tied directly to the creation mandate. This means that what is natural and intended for human beings by God is what should be held as good. While it is clear, from outside study, that there is a genetic tendency towards same-sex attraction in certain people, it is possible to resist these tendencies when necessary to maintain personal holiness.

Third, is that while these verses certainly deal with Paul pushing against an idolatrous culture, that should be held as a positive rather than a negative. Understanding to a degree that the church should be distinct from the world is also repeated throughout the Bible. That we are in the world and not of the world, a city on a hill, lights in the darkness and so forth. Therefore, Christians shouldn’t be swayed by shifting cultural times as we are meant to stand out when necessary, and this appears to be one of these issues. This does not mean Christians should be abrasive, judgmental, or attack same-sex couples on their sin, they should love and show grace to everyone, but they do need to recognize when something is wrong and stand for the truth.

In short, the traditional perspective seems pretty straightforward and direct, believing that both scripture and nature do not give room to hold a contrary view.

The Progressive Perspective:

The progressive perspective pushes back against some of these issues, claiming they are not as clear as the traditional perspective makes them out to be.

First, nothing like a modern Christian same-sex relationship existed within the times of Leviticus or Romans. The emphasis of Paul in Romans and the context of the letter is vital to understanding exactly what Paul is referring to. He is referring to those who abandoned God and pursued idolatry in order to emphasize how great God’s grace ultimately is. The language and cultural context demonstrate an act specifically aimed at worshiping the creature in temple worship, or acts meant to humiliate or demean the other. For Christians who have not abandoned God, who are not committing idolatry, and who genuinely show love and respect to their partner, this scriptural context does not fit. Christian same-sex couples remain humble and faithful to God, demonstrating the same love and respect to their partner as any spouse would.

Second, procreation was not the primary, or even the most important aspect of the creation mandate. To be fruitful and multiply means far more than having children, and to assert as much is not just demeaning to same-sex partners, but to other married couples who are unable to have children. To be fruitful and multiply involves mirroring to a lesser extent what God was doing in ordering and filling the earth with culture, creativity, love and so forth, all to His glory. Furthermore, the more we’ve discovered about the human genetic makeup and about genetic tendencies and pre-dispositions, what could be considered attractions according to “one’s nature” is up for debate.

Third, it is absolutely necessary for Christians to stand up for what is true and moral even against culture and society. However, this occasionally means standing against some Christians in society when proper interpretations of what the Bible means, or truthful findings on cultural issues have changed. This has happened just as often historically as it has been necessary to stand against something sinful in society. Christians against Christian Gnostics, or against the works righteousness and imperialism of the medieval Catholic church, or against slavery and segregation. This once again should not happen judgmentally, arrogantly or without grace, nor does it mean that people should hop on every cultural shift as it happens. What it does mean is that when something has happened that Christians need to stand up for or against they do so with conviction.

Love and Theological Grey Areas:

            Theological difference has existed between Christians nearly from the beginning of Christianity. There have been numerous debates on a multitude of issues such as creation, infant baptism, the eucharist, the importance of Old Testament law, women in ministry, and so forth. The primary reason why Christians disagree on so many areas of theology, is because there are often multiple theological interpretations for them. Scripture seems to be intentionally vague on a number of issues, preferring more to construct a narrative of who God is, and His relationship to us, than giving us complete answers to every possible concept or cultural scenario.

Even minor theological issues that were clear become less so as time passes. Growing understanding of creation, the universe, human genetics, and so forth cause human beings to re-evaluate, adapt, and move forward with a deeper understanding of God that isn’t tied to an antiquated view of reality. Large changes in culture, such as a move from monarchies, changing gender roles, adaptations in technology, social structure, and politics have pushed Christians to discuss and reinterpret parts of scripture relating to an ancient view of culture that no longer applies, all while maintaining a view of a God who does.

In each of these moves, Christians have grown to value the of understanding what the Bible is, and what it is not. The Bible is a revelation and understanding of who God is, who we are because of who He is, and understanding His interaction and relationship with us. It is a narrative that is centered and hinged upon one primary aspect above all else, the love of God.

It is on this idea of love that our understanding of theological greys finds its footing. This is because love, as dictated by scripture, is the central concept on which everything and every interaction relies. What is righteousness? It is the process of love between human beings and God, and between themselves. (Matthew 22:36-40) How do we handle disagreement between others? With love and grace. (Romans 14) How do we know who God is? By truly understanding the nature of love. (1 John 4:7-21) How do we approach and handle the idea of sin? A love which covers it. (1 Peter 4:8) Finally, what is the greatest of Christian virtues? Love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

In attempting to understand and approach theological grey areas, it seems clear that love is the process by which Christians do that. Love in the disagreement, love in the conviction, love in the approach, and love in the understanding. The biggest challenge, and only proper solution to an issue like this is, “What are the demands of love placed on us as Christians, and what does it mean in approaching our faith?”

While we may never fully understand many of the theological grey areas and disagreements, we find ourselves in we can never forget or deny the primary aspect of our faith that motivates us forward, unconditional love. So ask yourself, “What demands does love place on me and my approach to this issue?”

Bibliography:

Dunn, James. D.G. Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38A, Romans 1-8. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Gagnon, Robert A. J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Nashville, Tennessee.; Abingdon Press, 2001.

Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996.

Rodgers, Jack. Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality; Explode the Myths, Health the Church. Louisville, Kentucky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Ruden, Sarah. Paul Among the People. New York, New York: Random House Inc., 2008.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. Nashville, Tennessee: Abington Press, 1996.

Wilson, Ken. A Letter to my Congregation, Canton, Michigan: Read the Spirit Books, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: