On misunderstanding Paul – a response to Marcus Greene

The basic claim made in Greene’s paper

In the latest addition to the ViaMedia.News series ‘Does the Bible Really Say,’  Marcus Greene addresses the question ‘Does the Bible Really Say…that St Paul ‘Hates Gays’?’[1]

At the start of his paper Greene answers this question by declaring unequivocally: ‘St Paul doesn’t ‘hate gays’. Short of Jesus, he’s our best friend in the whole of the Scriptures.’

In order to justify this claim he looks first of all at Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11, two texts which have been traditionally used to show that Paul disapproved of same-sex sexual activity.

Romans 1:18-32

On Romans 1:18-32 Greene makes two points.

First, Romans 1:26-27 is not about gay people as such, but only about ‘broken’ gay people. In Romans 1:28-32, he says:

‘St Paul is writing about folk who live in brokenness. He’s not writing about all relationships, and he’s not saying that every person is wicked, evil, greedy, envious, murderous, deceitful, malicious, insolent, inventing evil, faithless, loveless and merciless. He is saying that people (and this means predominantly straight people in our understanding – though Paul wouldn’t know the term) who are broken from God are set on this depraved path.’

This in turn means, that:

…. even if verses 26 & 27, the middle verses in this passage, are about gay people, in context they are about sinful, broken, idolatrous gay people. They are not a theology helping us to think about how to respond to all LGBT folk in church – any more than verses 28-32 are an understanding of all straight people in church.’

Secondly, Paul’s argument that same-sex relationships are against nature does not mean such relationships are wrong:

‘People get very heated over the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ (better – ‘against nature’) in Romans 1.26-27. “There you go – St Paul says being gay is unnatural.”

I was always taught to let the Bible interpret the Bible. And St Paul is a great help in this, because he uses the same words later in Romans.

In Romans 11.24 we again have ‘natural’ and ‘contrary to nature’ being used. It’s the same language. I know that in Romans 1 some people want to see ‘natural’ as a pure good and ‘against nature’ as an unparalleled bad – but in Romans 11, it is we Gentile Christians who are described by St Paul as being grafted into a cultivated olive tree ‘against nature’, a process which most of us rather depend on, and look at as being a positive thing.

It seems that God can act ‘against nature’ and in doing so produce something positive. ‘Nature’ in St Paul is not the final arbiter of good and evil. We do not worship nature – the creation; that’s rather the point of Romans 1! We worship the Creator of nature, who made the creation to be a blessing for us.’

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

On 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Greene rejects the NIV translation of the two Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai in verse 9 as ‘men who have sex with men.’ He writes:

Malakoi is well translated by the Authorised Version as ‘effeminate’, but I think we hear the wrong connotation with that. In Roman culture … an effeminate man could be one who was seeking the attention of women. Quite the reverse of our expectation. Also, the list of words doesn’t link ‘arsenokoitai’ with ‘malakoi’ – our presumptions do. If malakoi is a ‘ladies man’ it fits well with ‘adulterers’, the word before it. The effect would be – “the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who prey on women, men who prey on men, those who steal, those who are greedy…”

This is what some of the believers in Corinth were. Not gay – as indeed they aren’t being critiqued for being straight – but people displaying the evidences of broken relationship with God. People not loving their neighbour. People draining life from others in order to serve themselves. People who are abusing life to excess because they have not discovered Jesus’ gift of living life to the full. That’s what they were.’

He then further contends that the emphasis of 1 Corinthians 5-7 as a whole is about the sins of straight people:

‘1 Corinthians 5 talks of problems in the fellowship to do with failures in heterosexual marriage. 1 Corinthians 7 talks of the gift of marriage in the community – and the gift of celibacy for some in that community. 1 Corinthians 6 is not a bracketed text in the middle with a theology for gay people. It’s part of this sweep, and its clear emphasis is on the sins of straight people.’

The bigger picture

In the final section of his paper Greene appeals to Galatians 6:15: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation ‘ and Ephesians 2, 15, 19: ‘“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two (Jew and Gentile) thus making peace…Consequently you are no longer foreigners and strangers.”  These verses, he suggests, give us the bigger picture, the broader Pauline vision, within which we should address questions concerning sexuality.

Paul, he writes:

‘… had a huge, transformative and truly revolutionary vision of a new community – a new humanity – that broke every social and economic rule in the book. No slave or free, no male or female, no Jew or Gentile. Every believer becoming one in Christ. God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Children together by grace through faith.’

Greene acknowledges that Paul ‘has a huge focus on sexual propriety,’ However:

‘… for some today to think they have a hold on this which begins by making others less free, less human, less reflective of the relational love within the Godhead is again to miss the transforming gift of God’s new humanity.

Christianity ought never be mistaken for a heterosexual fertility cult – and St Paul’s call for abstinence is not aimed at gay folk but perhaps at some of the straight folk who get that emphasis wrong!’

The problems with Greene’s argument.

Greene’s argument is unconvincing for a number of reasons.

The language of gay and straight

First, Greene’s repeated use of the terms ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ is misleading. These terms reflect a late twentieth century worldview in which classifies people according to their sexual desires. This is not how Paul’s anthropology works. For him, as for the Bible as whole, people are not defined by their sexual desires, but by their sex. The categories he works with are not ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ but ‘male’ and female.’  In consequence his sexual ethics are not based on how people should behave as ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ but on how they should behave as those who God has created as male or female.

Romans 1:26-27

Secondly, Greene misunderstands Paul’s argument in Romans 1. What Paul says about same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1:26-27 is not aimed at a particular sub-set of ‘gay’ people who manifest a broken relationship with God in a way that other ‘gay’ people do not.

As has already been noted, the very concept of ‘gay’ people is foreign to Paul’s thinking and thus needs to be set aside. Paul’s argument is that all human beings are broken (see Romans 3:22-23), but that for some men and women this brokenness manifests itself in having sexual intercourse with members of their own sex.

As Tom Wright notes, the starting point for Paul’s argument is that God created men and women to complement each other, to have sexual relations with each other and to be procreative (‘fruitful’ Genesis 1:28) as a result. In this context, the point that Paul is making about same-sex sexual activity:

‘…is not simply that ‘we Jews don’t approve of this,’ or ‘relationships like this are always unequal or exploitative.’ His point is ‘this is not what males and females were made for.’ Nor is he suggesting that everyone who feels sexually attracted to members of their own sex, or everyone who engages in actual same-sex relations, has got to that point through committing specific acts of idolatry. Nor, again, does he suppose that all those who find themselves in that situation have arrived there by a specific choice to give up heterosexual possibilities. Reading the text like that reflects a modern individualism rather than Paul’s larger, all-embracing perspectives. Rather, he is talking about the human race as a whole. His point is not that ‘there are some exceptionally wicked people out there who do these revolting things,’ but ‘the fact that such clear distortions of creator’s male-plus-female intention occur in the world indicates that the human race as a whole is guilty of a character twisting idolatry.’ He sees the practice of same-sex relations as a sign that the human world in general is out of joint.’[2]

Greene’s appeal to Romans 11:24 to attempt to give a positive spin to Paul’s description of same-sex sexual activity as ‘unnatural’ (para phusin) fails because it does not recognize that in the two different contexts Paul is using the same phrase in two different ways. In Romans 11:24 he is referring to an act of divine grace that goes beyond what is naturally the case, whereas in Romans 1:26-27 Paul is referring to acts of human sin that go against nature in the sense of being contrary to the good purposes of the creator God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Thirdly, Greene also misunderstands what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6.

The first point here is that 1 Corinthians 5-7 does not have an ‘emphasis on the sins of straight people’ for the simple reason that, as we have already noted, the concept of ‘straight’ people as opposed to ‘gay’ people does not figure in Paul’s theology

The second point is that Greene has simply chosen to ignore what is now the established scholarly consensus about the meaning of the Greek  terms malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9. To quote Tom Wright again, these are:

‘…two words which have been much debated, but which experts have now established, clearly refer to the practice of male homosexuality. The two terms refer respectively to the passive or submissive partner and the active or aggressive one, and Paul places both roles on his list of unacceptable behaviour.’[3]

The scholarly consensus about the matter is supported even by ‘gay affirming’ scholars and the reasons why this is the case are helpfully explained by the distinguished American church historian Eugene Rice (himself supportive of same-sex relationships) in his article on Paul for the online GLBTQ encyclopedia:

‘ At 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Paul lists a heterogeneous group of sinners whom he bars from the kingdom of God. The sexual offenders consist of fornicators, adulterers, and two kinds of men: malakoi and arsenokoitai–the nouns are plural and masculine.

The meanings of these Greek nouns have been the subject of lively debate, largely provoked by gay authors anxious to show that Paul and the early church had not intended to condemn homosexuality per se as harshly as has been traditionally supposed, but only a degraded type of pederasty associated with prostitution and child abuse.

Recent scholarship has shown conclusively that the traditional meanings assigned to these words stand. So do the traditional translations: the Latin translation “commonly used in the church,” and therefore known as the Vulgate, and the English King James Version (KJV).

Malakoi

Malakoi (Latin Vulgate: molles) should have caused no problem. There is ample evidence that in sexual contexts, in both classical and post-classical times, malakos designated the receptive partner in a male same-sex act, a meaning decisively reconfirmed in late antiquity by the physician Caelius Aurelianus when he tells us that the Greeks call malakoi males whom the Latins call molles or subacti, males, that is, who play the receptive role in anal intercourse.

Paul’s malakoi, we can say with certainty, are males–boys, youths, or adults–who have consented, either for money or for pleasure, for some perceived advantage or as an act of affectionate generosity, to be penetrated by men.

Arsenokoitai

The word is a verbal noun, and its earliest attestation is in this verse of Paul’s. It is a compound of arsen = “male” and koités = “a man who lies with (or beds).” And so we have, describing Oedipus, metrokoités, “a man who lies with his mother,” doulokoités, “a man who lies with maidservants or female slaves,” polykoités, “a man who lies with many,” and onokoités, “a man who lies with donkeys,” said of Christians in a graffito from Carthage of about 195.

Arsenokoitai are therefore “men who lie with males,” and the Vulgate’s masculorum concubitores (where masculorum is an objective genitive), renders the Greek exactly to mean “men who lie with males,” “men who sleep with males,” “men who have sex with males.”

The source of arsenokoitai is in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (finished around 130 B. C. E. for the use of Greek-speaking Jews). The Septuagint of Leviticus 18:22 reads: Kai meta arsenos ou koiméthés koitén gynaikeian, and of Lev. 20:13, Kai os an koiméthé meta arsenos koitén gynaikos . . . ; Englished we have, “With a male you shall not lie the bed/intercourse (koité) of a woman,” and “Whoever lies with a male the koité of a woman, [both have done an abominable thing, they shall be put to death.]”

The dependence of Paul’s arsenokoitai on the Levitical arsenos koitén demonstrates unequivocally its source and confirms his intended meaning. The word was almost certainly coined by Greek-speaking Jews. Understood in the context of what we know about role playing in most ancient same-sex relationships, malakoi are the receptive parties and arsenokoitai the inserters in male-male anal intercourse.’[4]

In the light of this evidence Greene’s argument simply collapses. 1 Corinthians 6:9 is about men who have sex with men and Paul says such activity bars people from God’s kingdom. However, Paul goes on to say in v11 that that is not the end of the matter. How people have behaved in the past is not the last word. To quote Wright once more, Paul’s message is that:

‘God himself has provided the way in which people can leave their past, and indeed their present, behind, and move towards his future. You can be washed clean, whatever has happened in the past. You can be one of God’s special people, whatever you are in the present.’[5]

The bigger picture

Fourthly, Greene is absolutely correct when he says that Paul has a ‘huge, transformative and truly revolutionary vision of a new community.’  Where Greene goes wrong is in failing to recognize that Paul’s ‘focus on sexual propriety’ is an integral part of this vision.

Paul has a vision of a community in which, because of the redeeming work of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, anyone, no matter who they are, or what they have done, can begin to live as the people God made them to be. However, for Paul living in this way involves a call to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20) and this means living a life marked either by singleness and sexual abstinence, or sexual faithfulness within (heterosexual) marriage (1 Corinthians 6:12-7:40). Any other form of sexual activity (including same-sex activity) is porneia (sexual immorality), which is something Paul warns all Christians to eschew (see Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5).

This is not, as Greene seems to think, just a message for ‘straight’ people, but for everybody, whatever their sexual desires. Nor does it mean condemning people to be ‘less free, less human, less reflective of the relational love within the Godhead.’ There is abundant evidence that people who are same-sex attracted, but who live in accordance with the pattern set out by St. Paul, can and do live lives that are fully free, fully human and fully reflective of the Triune love of God. [6]

Conclusion

For the reasons explained above, asking whether Paul hates gay people involves asking the wrong question. ‘Gay’ and ‘straight’ are simply not categories of his thought.[7]  However, what one can properly ask is whether his letters show that Paul hated people who engaged in same-sex sexual activity.

The answer is ‘no.’ We know he thought such activity was unequivocally sinful, but there is no evidence at all that he hated the people concerned. On the contrary, his letters show that his deepest desire was that they, along with all other people, should flourish as God intended, both in this life and the next. His warnings against sexual immorality were intended to help people achieve this goal and thus were motivated not by hate, but by love.

M B Davie 22.6.19

[1] Marcus Greene, ‘Does the Bible Really Say…that St Paul ‘Hates Gays’?,’  21 June 2019 at

https://viamedia.news/.

[2] Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone – Romans Part I (London: SPCK, 2004), pp.22-23.

[3] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone -1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), p. 69.

[4] Eugene Rice, ‘Paul, St.’, GLBTQ Encyclopedia, 2015 at http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/paul_S.pdf.

[5] Wright, I Corinthians, p.70.

[6] For the evidence for this point see the material available on and through the ‘Living Out’ website at

https://www.livingout.org/ or the website of the ‘True Freedom Trust’ at https://truefreedomtrust.co.uk/.

[7] Its rather like asking if George Washington was a Democrat or a Republican.

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