By Paul Toscano
I have come to believe that sexuality is a spiritual gift, be it heterosexuality or homosexuality. This belief is based in large measure on the explicit and implicit teachings of Jesus and the writings of his most influential and immediate evangelist, Paul of Tarsus. I assert this knowing that the conservative Christian aversion to homosexuality is justified scripturally largely by verses 26 and 27 of Chapter 1 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, verses that are usually quoted out of context as follows:
. . . for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
In this article, I contend that those who find support in these verses for homophobia mistakenly seize upon a single example of Paul’s larger concern and, consequently, misunderstand the pith and substance of this entire epistle, which most New Testament scholars acknowledge contains the most definitive exposition of Christian theology found in any of the authentic letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles. This epistle is about the superiority of divine love over human lust; it does not condemn homosexuality.
The epistle’s main points are easily lost on many readers because its introduction lacks a concise modern statement of its purpose, its subject matter, and its audience. To be clear, then, the epistle’s audience originally consisted of Jewish Christians and prospective Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity living at Rome around 57 A.D., about 10 years after Paul started his missionary work. At the time he wrote the epistle, Paul was temporarily in Corinth. The epistle’s subject matter is to clarify the good news of salvation proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. Its purpose is to set forth a defense of Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ teachings against a rival understanding promoted by a contingent of Jewish Christians.
This contingent, known as the Judaizers, insisted that the conversion of Gentiles to Christianity first required their conversion to Judaism. They believed Christianity was merely an interpretation of Judaism rather than a separate religious sect. Leaders of this contingent had sought to reclaim Paul’s converts for Judaism by requiring Gentile Christians to submit to the Law of Moses as a condition of their acceptance by Christians at Jerusalem, who claimed to be the elite core of the Jesus movement. The conflict between Paul and these legalists had raged since the Council of Jerusalem, convened in 49 A.D. and attended by Christian disciples who had heard Jesus teach. The Council had considered the arguments of both Paul and the Judaizers, and Paul’s view of Christianity had prevailed. But the legalists would not accede to the Council’s decision and proceeded to preach Judaistic Christianity to Paul’s Gentile converts, probably beginning with his second missionary journey sometime between 49 and 52 A.D.
To counter this influence, Paul dictated his epistle to the Romans, addressing converts and potential converts to Christianity. The epistle was not written to address questions of homosexuality, same-sex attraction, or the propriety of consensual homosexual sex. Neither was it written to provide Paul’s converts with a list of behaviors to avoid or even primarily to distinguish salvation by grace from salvation by works, although that is certainly one subtext. The epistle was written to defend the version of Christ’s gospel endorsed at the Council of Jerusalem and to refute the Judaizers’ claims that God’s covenant with the Jews was immutable. The Judaizers argued that if God could not be relied upon to keep this old covenant, he could not be relied upon to keep his new covenant through Jesus the Messiah and that Christ’s teachings could not therefore establish a separate religion or a way to salvation apart from the Law of Moses. For these reasons, the Judaizers insisted that all male Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised and that all Christians obey the Mosaic Law.
The Epistle to the Romans appears to be structured as a series of stated refutations of often unstated attacks on Paul’s teachings. To read the Epistle rightly requires readers to supply the unstated accusation that Paul refutes in each section of his letter—much as in the TV game show Jeopardy, where contestants supply the unstated question called for by a stated answer. Applied to Paul’s epistle, this process takes patience and cannot, of course, be certain. But I’ve found the effort makes considerable sense of what at first reading seems a somewhat chaotic textual arrangement. Using this approach, I will now summarize the segments of this epistle in order to establish a scriptural foundation for what I believe is the proper link between spirituality and sexuality, hetero and homo.
Paul famously states in Romans chapter 1, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (v. 16). Paul refutes the legalistic notion that the gospel of Christ is a list of do’s and don’ts to which Christians must conform. He advances instead the view that the gospel is the spiritual power by which Christian converts are transformed, reborn, or renewed as spiritual creatures. Paul also refutes the accusation that he is unconcerned with righteousness, asserting that faith leads to righteousness: “the righteousness of God [is] revealed from faith to faith” and “the just shall live by faith” (v. 17), not simply by works. Paul argues that unrighteousness is primarily a consequence of rejecting God. He thus avoids prescribing and proscribing specific behaviors. He argues that the wrath of God is kindled not by any particular act, sexual or otherwise, but by the worship of the creation instead of the Creator, that is, by rejecting the divine power in favor of immersion into the powers of this world. In Paul’s view, this turning from the sacred to the profane is the wellspring of lust. Thus, he says, when people give up God (1:21–23), God gives “them up unto vile affections” (v. 26).
Paul condemns all manifestations of lust. Referring first to heterosexual lust, he writes that “God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves” (v. 24). Then, turning to homosexual lust, he writes that “women did change the natural use into that which is against nature’ and that “also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet” (v. 26–27). Paul does not condemn physical love, sexual attraction, or sex acts. He condemns lust, which he believes follows one’s rejection of God. Paul here merely restates Jesus’ teaching that good and evil are not so much matters of exteriority as interiority. This is why Paul warns mainly against the interior state of lust, rather than focusing on specific outward behaviors. For Paul, lust is the counterfeit of love. Where love saves, lust damns. For this reason, lust, the consequence of a rejection of God, must be avoided by a reconnection with God through Jesus Christ.
Paul widens the meaning of lust beyond the sexual to include lust for power, privilege, leisure, wealth, domination, or the ambition to be part of an elite social, economic, or spiritual class. He does this, not by formal definition, but by illustration, listing evils that can flow from lust: “unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness . . . envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity,” wrongs done by “whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful” (v. 29–31). The list seems rather random. It makes no attempt to prioritize wrongs. It starts with the general term “unrighteousness” then lists “fornication” followed by “wickedness.” Only after covetousness, maliciousness, and envy does Paul mention murder. If this list were intended as a catalogue of sins or prohibitions, then one would have supposed murder to have topped it. But it doesn’t. Paul avoids the Judaizing trap of preaching against symptoms rather than identifying the fundamental cause of unrighteousness—the rejection of God and the powers of heaven.
In chapter 2, Paul refutes the claim that God has no interest in Gentiles and favors only obedient Jews. He argues that God is no respecter of persons but judges both Jew and Gentile by the same standard.
In chapter 3, Paul refutes the accusation that he taught his converts that God had rejected the Jews. To the contrary, he argues that neither the Jews nor the Gentiles are superior in God’s eyes. Both sin. Both are imperfect. Jews can no more claim to be righteous because of their performance under the Law of Moses than Gentiles can claim to be righteous because of their performance in accordance with the law revealed to their minds—their God-given consciences. Paul argues that the Mosaic Law defines sin but cannot confer upon humans the power to resist it. Likewise, the human conscience creates an awareness of sin and even guilt but cannot engender the power to resist them. Neither law nor conscience is adequate to perfect humanity. Thus, he writes, “all”—Jews and Gentiles—”have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (v. 23). Nevertheless, the grace of God is available to Jew and Gentile alike “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24).
In chapter 4, Paul asserts that faith—not obedience—is the key to salvation, reminding his readers that Abraham was saved by faith long before the Law was ever revealed to Moses.
Chapter 5 advances the thesis that justification from sin does not flow from obedience but instead is bestowed upon each of the faithful by an act of sheer grace.1
In chapter 6, Paul refutes the Judaizers’ accusation that he taught his converts that they could freely sin because the more sin abounded in the world, the more grace could be manifest: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid” (v. 1–2). Paul explains that the faithful are baptized in the similitude of Christ’s death and raised out of the baptismal waters in the similitude of a resurrection into a “newness of life” (v. 4). Those who, in baptism, “die” in Christ are thereby freed from sin by Christ (v. 7–11). The fruit of the good news of God’s grace is transforming love (v. 14), the antithesis and antidote to lust, which is the seedbed of sin (v. 12). Paul maintains that those who are filled with the grace of Christ are filled with love and lose the inclination to sin (v. 22). This transformation is not a result of works, but is a free gift from God, a point Paul expresses famously in the final verse of this chapter: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 23).
Chapter 7 contains Paul’s argument that the Jews need not regard conversion to Christ as a rejection of their former covenant with God. Paul likens Israel’s relation to God to a marriage. Since God has died on the cross, argues Paul, then Israel has become a widow, now free to remarry the resurrected Christ. Thus, a converted Jew’s faith in Christ is not unfaithfulness to the God of Moses (v. 1–3). In their new relationship with Christ, Jews are delivered from the Law of Moses (v. 4–6). Here Paul develops his argument that the law, though holy, cannot impart holiness even to its most ardent adherents. It can serve only as a standard against which all fall short: “Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, “Thou shalt not covet” (v. 7). This equation between lust and covetousness is the closest Paul comes to a formal definition of lust. Paul ascribes covetousness to human nature: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (v. 15). Paul recognized a law in human nature (namely, lust) that wars against the law or will of God (namely, love) (v. 23).
In chapter 8, Paul asserts that the only antidote to human nature and its inclination to lust and sin is the Spirit of God offered by the grace and intercession of Jesus Christ: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (v. 2).2
At the climax of chapter 8, Paul proclaims that the consequence of accepting God in Jesus Christ is to receive, by his grace, God’s transforming Spirit, which fills each disciple with the love of God. This love is the power of salvation and the heart of the gospel. Paul reveals divine love to be the essence of his teachings when he poses a question to his readers: “Who is he that condemneth?” He does not answer this rhetorical question because he knows his listeners’ minds will supply the conventional answer: God condemns sinners. It is an answer Paul refutes:
It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. (v. 34)
God does not condemn. This is Paul’s good news: God, who alone can condemn, is instead the one “that justifieth” (v. 33) and “maketh intercession for us” (v. 34). If God loves us in our sins instead of rejecting us, then “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (v. 35).
Paul’s point is that God, in Christ, reveals that he loves us more than he hates our sins. Love trumps condemnation. It trumps sin. It even trumps death. For this reason, Paul writes triumphantly:
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:37–39)
In Romans chapters 9 through 16, Paul appears to drop his technique of point-by-point refutation and begins a gospel exposition. He reassures his Jewish readers that God never breached his covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the house of Israel; God never abandoned his chosen people; and God never replaced them with another.3
In chapter 10, Paul argues that the Judaizers have zeal but lack knowledge. He does not condemn his detractors but merely observes that they have the wrong interpretation of Christ’s salvific message and atoning work: “they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge . . . being ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness” (v. 2–3).4
In chapters 11 and 12, Paul emphasizes the astounding concept that for those raised to new life in Christ, righteousness is not achieved by avoiding alleged contaminating foods, or drinks, or associates, or behaviors but rather by having one’s being saturated in the grace, Spirit, and the love of God: “I beseech you therefore . . . be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1–2). Today this central gospel teaching seems almost universally ignored or denied by organized Christian churches, societies, and congregations. This teaching widens the circle of Christians beyond those who merely conform their outward behavior to the exterior expectations of the group. It is this same teaching that shatters the heresy that homosexual sex is necessarily sin.
In chapter 13, Paul repeats his argument that the love of God is the opposite of lust.5 He asserts that the only remedy for lust is love and that all the commandments—”Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet”—are “briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (v. 9). Having laid out this view of lust, Paul closes this chapter with a refrain of his overall thesis: “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (v. 14).
In chapter 14, Paul admonishes his disciples to accept each other’s differences and not to judge one another, especially by outward behavior: “For one believeth that he may eat all things; another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not” (v. 2–3). He asserts that nothing is unclean unless one believes it to be so. This is an extremely important and troubling doctrine to the Christian community. Nothing is unclean in and of itself. Anything, however, can be unclean to those who think it to be so: “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (v. 14).
From this teaching, it is arguable that even the killing of one human being by another is in itself not necessarily unclean. In a way, modern criminal justice has adopted this view. Not every homicide is murder. Sometimes the killing of one human being by another is premeditatedly committed in cold blood and, therefore, deserving of life imprisonment or perhaps death. Other times, the act is unintentional, but still punishable. And at yet other times, the act can be excused as self-defense, inadvertence, accident, or the result of an intervening cause. What judge or jury must examine in each case is the admissible totality of the perpetrator’s circumstances, both interior and exterior, as well as those of the victim. If this is true for criminal acts in the modern sense, it is certainly true of less-than-criminal acts.
Paul’s point in chapter 14 is that in the kingdom of God, righteousness is based not on actions alone but on intentions, desires, hopes, dreams, aspirations, as well as love, peace, and joy (v. 17). These are all difficult to quantify and therefore often fall beyond human judgment, which is why final judgment must be left to God. Paul ends chapter 14 with the remarkable observation that if a person has faith that a certain behavior is righteous before God, then happy is that person if he does not condemn himself or herself in performing that behavior. This is such a radical notion that, frankly, I have never heard it advanced in any Christian context whatsoever. Let me repeat it in the actual words of Paul found in the King James Version:
It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? Then have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (14:21–23)
Paul does not say that righteousness is whatever one thinks it is. Rather he makes the radical point that no behavior—which presumably includes sexual acts—is in itself sinful if it is done with love, peace, and joyfulness born of faith in God. Obviously, this is not a recipe for social order but for a Christian’s assessment of self and others. Paul does not advise people to hide or lie about such “allowed” behavior but he does suggest that it should not be flaunted before those who believe it to be sinful—an attempt on his part to reconcile the individual sense of spirituality with the community sense of propriety (v. 21).
In chapter 15, Paul presses this point that the faithful should not push others to accept what they cannot accept. In essence, Paul says: Accept one another as Christ accepted you. “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (v. 7). He argues that, if Christians assume an accepting posture, over time the Spirit of God will lead them into unity: “the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus” (v. 5). This instruction should influence the modern debate about the acceptability of homosexuality in Christian communities. It should place a burden on homosexual Christians to accept the sentiments of anti-gay Christians while placing an equal burden on their Christian opponents to accept the sentiments of pro-gay Christians.
At the end of chapter 15, Paul asserts his authority for teaching this understanding of the gospel. He does not rest that authority on the vision he received on the road to Damascus, nor on the resurrected Jesus directly calling him as an apostle, nor on his approval or ordination by other apostles, nor even on the decision of the Council of Jerusalem to endorse his understanding of Jesus’ teachings. He rests his authority on the fact that those who accept the gospel are transformed by grace and filled with love through the Holy Spirit (v. 15–16).
Continued in Part II