Perspectives on Paul and Homosexuality

Believers who condemn gays often use Paul’s comment in Romans as airtight proof of their position, but there are three reasonable alternative perspectives of this passage:

    1. Paul thought homosexuality was evil
    2. Paul had in mind practices connected with idol worship
    3. Paul summarized typical Jewish thinking about Gentiles

Beginning in reverse order, we considered perspective C earlier; today we will look at the others.

perspectivesHomosexuality or Idolatry-Related Ritual?

Is Paul talking about homosexuality in this passage or something else? Considering the context of Paul’s statement, it seems he might refer to religious ritual instead—perhaps temple prostitution.

Romans chapter 1 says:

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

It certainly appears that Paul’s focus is idolatry and that the sexual acts are part of that idolatry. If this is so, then Paul’s comment has no connection to gay relationships today, which have nothing to do with idol worship.

Are These Actually Paul’s Views?

Keep in mind that this might not represent Paul’s opinion, as we discussed last time. He might be recapitulating views of Jews who castigated Gentiles. But, we don’t have to choose between perspectives B and C; they are consistent with each other.

So we could conclude that Paul demonstrates, and opposes, the views of Gentile-bashing Jews who hated their idolatrous behavior. Perhaps the Jews had in mind Deuteronomy chapter 23:

No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute…because the Lord your God detests them both.

Paul’s Romans passage continues to describe these terrible people:

They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful.

If we remove the God-hating, the rest of these accusations remind me of many conservative leaders and believers I’ve known.

Do Paul’s Opinions Represent the Views of the Father?

Though I believe it very likely that Paul opposes the views of Jews who castigate Gentiles and their idolatrous practices, in the end it doesn’t matter whether he states his own opinion or that of others.

There is a much larger issue to consider, and this brings us to perspective A.

I have great admiration for Paul. He was a creative thinker, and it is he who opened fully the good news of Jesus to Gentiles like me. But Paul was also human and one who spoke from his limited understanding—like we all do; he even admits as much.

When Paul gave us great insights, it changed the church forever. But when he made errors, it entrenched those errors in the church and made them difficult to overcome. Such was the influence of Paul.

Unfortunately, Paul’s comments in Romans chapter 1 cause tremendous pain because many mistake Paul for the voice of God and accept his words as God’s judgment on gays, even though that wasn’t even the point he was trying to make. The real tragedy is that believers use Paul’s words here to cancel out his more emphatic words about love.

If Paul were to visit us today, and see the results of his comment, my guess is he would be distressed beyond measure that people have used his words to hurt other people.

What about the Sins Lists?

We have covered four of the six most common clobber passages. The remaining two are Paul’s sin lists.

1 Corinthians chapter 6 reads:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Timothy chapter 1 says:

The law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

We will spend little time on these passages for two reasons: we don’t know what the most important Greek words mean and even if this is Paul’s opinion it doesn’t mean it’s the Father’s opinion.

The Greek words are very ambiguous and are translated in Bibles quite differently. Arsenokoitai might even have been coined by Paul himself, for there is no known precedent for the word. Malakos means ‘soft’ but does not seem  specifically sexual. It could refer to a soldier soft in battle or men who lived pampered lives. For centuries theologians thought it meant masturbation.

These are VERY weak arguments, but whatever these words mean why do we focus on them for God’s special condemnation and ignore the ‘Greedy’ and ‘Slanderers’?

This completes our review of the clobber passages. Next time we will consider gays and Jesus’ inclusiveness.

Photo Credit: Camera Eye Photography via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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13 Responses to Perspectives on Paul and Homosexuality

  1. michaeleeast says:

    Thank you Tim for the review of the clobber passages.
    I have read before about the two suspect words in Paul’s sin lists.
    It seems unlikely that they refer to homosexuality at all.


  2. cmgatlin53 says:

    I think it’s pretty clear that at least “arsenokoitai” refers to some sort of sexual activity, given that the second element of the word is equivalent to our F-word, although most commentators can’t quite stomach using such direct language when discussing these passages. I have a strong suspicion that Paul’s juxtaposition of “malakoi” in this context includes rhetorical use of paranomasia, with “-koitai” and “-koi” as the punning word elements.


    • Thanks for your contribution, CM.


    • Chas says:

      I have some recollection of seeing the arseno prefix, or something from the same root, as having the meaning ‘works’ or ‘mechanism.’ With the suffix associated with coitus, it would seem to have the meaning more of masturbation than anal penetration.


      • Thanks Chas!

        It has been awhile since I’ve read a detailed analysis of these words, and I didn’t do a thorough review for this article because I think it is such a poor argument to begin with. The words are not clear and it is impossible to determine what they mean.

        So thanks for your contribution.


        • Chas says:

          Tim, have been able to track down where I saw this. The Arabic word from which the word arsenal is derived means workshop or literally ‘house of handwork’, so the meaning of the word ‘arsenokoitai’ does seem most likely to be masturbation. Maybe a wry joke by Paul!


          • Excellent! Nice find, however I think these words are too obscure for any resolution of certainty.


          • Chas says:

            This has brought me a new view of Paul’s humanity. I have previously thought of him as a rather austere man, but this shows a glimpse of humor. I have long thought that his ‘thorn in the flesh’ referred to inappropriate/unwelcome erections, and this rather confirms it.


  3. Pingback: Questioning Paul and Homosexuality in Romans | Jesus Without Baggage

  4. Michelle says:

    I found an early Christian document written in about 200 AD (didn’t save it and can’t remember the name) that had an entire laundry list of sins that the church was to avoid. Notably absent was homosexuality. Pederasty, however, was included. I think that may be one of the confounding factors here.

    And YES, I wish, if we are to focus on the sins of others at ALL, that we would hold those who are greedy accountable. If we had done that from the get-go, we wouldn’t be in this mess with huge corporations and environmental catastrophe that we are in.

    I enjoy your posts.


    • This is an interesting point Michelle! If you run across the document let us know what it is. There are many things included in the various ‘sins lists’, and it is curious that we focus on homosexuality as being of utmost importance but not others.

      Thanks for your kind words!


  5. lotharson says:

    Hello Tim, thank you for this wonderful series of posts!

    I’m intrigued by the possibility that Roman 1 might be stating a Jewish opinion about gentiles which Paul did not necessarily share.

    That said, it is likely that he disapproved of homosexuality like all Jewish men of his time.
    However it is also possible that his most strident condemnation of homosexuality in other letters specifically targeted pedophiles and those queers living in a sexually depraved way.

    As you clearly pointed out, Paul’s opinion doesn’t always reflect that of the Father.

    For Gay Christians reading that, I want to mention again a simple reasoning grounded on the central teaching of Christ:

    Otherwise I just published an Easter tale with the same heroes as in the Christmas tale you liked 🙂


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