“The messages he had received referred to articles or news items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or, as the official phrase had it, to rectify.”
-George Orwell, 1984
When plain truth condemns what we love, our choices are few. We can abandon what we love in obedience to the truth, we can rebel openly against the truth, or we can attempt to re-write the truth to appease our conscience and silence our critics. When we choose Option 3 we join Winston, the main character in Orwell’s classic 1984 quoted above, as he alters (or rectifies) the inconvenient, unwanted facts.
Matthew Vines essentially does the same in his new book God and the Gay Christian, by taking scriptures plainly saying one thing and re-interpreting them to mean another. So far we’ve looked at his revisions of Biblical references to homosexuality in Leviticus, his approach to Jesus’ teachings, and in yesterday’s post we visited his reworking of Paul’s remarks about same sex coupling in Romans Chapter One. As mentioned earlier, Vines believes Paul did not criticize homosexuality as we know it today, and/or his knowledge on the subject was sketchy. Specifically, he argues that the Apostle’s negative references to this behavior were due to:
1. Paul’s Limited Understanding of Homosexuality
2. The Exploitive Nature of Homosexuality in Paul’s Time
3. The Male-Dominated Thinking Behind Condemnations of Homosexuality
Yesterday we looked at his first argument about Paul’s limited understanding of the subject. Today let’s look at his second and third points.
The Exploitative Nature of Homosexuality in Paul’s Time
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”
-Romans 1: 26-27
Paul’s description of homosexuality here is brief and unflattering: against nature, shameful, a vice earning a deserved penalty. In fairness he doesn’t elevate this above other sins, and he mentions a number of other equally serious sins in this chapter.
But it’s noteworthy that he chooses a perversion of the Creator’s intentions for the sexual union as a primary symptom of fallen nature. In fact, many (myself included) believe Romans One presents an inverted view of creation as God intended it, per Genesis: Man under God; Creation under Man; Male and Female united. In Romans 1 we see this picture turned upside down via sin, and the resulting, tragic confusion: Man under God becomes Man usurping God; Man over Nature becomes Man worshiping Nature; Male/Female uniting gives way to homosexual unions.
Vines would have us believe it’s not that simple, because homosexual relationships in Paul’s time weren’t, by and large, very nice. They often occurred between older men and younger boys, creating an obvious social and power imbalance. Or between masters and slaves, with or without the slave’s permission. Or in unbridled orgy-like settings in which the partners involved simply used each other as objects of lust. None of which resembles the expressions of homosexuality we see today, in which adults of the same sex form mutually agreed on unions marked by love, respect, and deep commitment.
For the record, let’s not dismiss his argument that homosexual adults are capable of such unions. While some see the battle for same sex marriage as a purely political ploy to legitimize homosexuality, I also see it as an earnest though misguided attempt to secure legal and social sanctioning of relationships they form and value.
But earnest doesn’t mean right, and Paul’s criticism of homosexual acts in these verses is across the board, whether those acts are committed between a slave and master, or between consenting adults who love each other. Vines attempts to qualify these verses by saying they only apply to exploitive homosexual sex; a clear reading of it shows that it applies to all homosexual sex.
Compare Vine’s approach to someone else trying to revise the Bible’s condemnation of fornication – sexual relations before or apart from marriage, and various unclean acts between unmarried people. Suppose someone pointed to the Girls Gone Wild videos, or Las Vegas strip clubs, or the lascivious behavior of many college students during spring break, and said, “That’s the fornication the Bible talks about, that unbridled, wild stuff. But two unmarried people having sex in a private, loving way isn’t even mentioned in the Bible.” You’d probably reply, “Nice try, but fornication is fornication, no matter how it’s practiced.”
And you’d be right; case closed, enough said.
The Male-Dominated Thinking Behind Condemnations of Homosexuality
Vines further argues that homosexuality between men, at Paul’s time, required one male partner to take the “female” or “passive” role in intercourse, and since women were looked upon as somewhat inferior in those days, the reason Paul and others criticized such behavior was because it involved a man degrading himself by acting like a woman. It wasn’t the sex between men that was wrong, but the fact that the sex required one man to assume a feminine position, and since women were inferior, that was inherently degrading.
But nothing in Paul’s wording suggests he made a distinction between the active or passive partner in same sex coupling. In fact, in these verses, part of his criticism of homosexuality lies in the fact men burned with lust one for another, regardless of who took which position.
We can allow that women were limited in their roles and privileges during ancient times, but it takes mental gymnastics to transpose that problem onto these verses as a means of interpretation. Throughout scripture, when sexual sins are mentioned, they are mentioned without qualifiers. Look again at both Old and New Testament prohibitions against adultery, incest, fornication, bestiality and prostitution. None of these prohibitions has a contextual qualifier attached to them – none of them suggest there is a legitimate versus illegitimate way to commit these acts. They are condemned regardless of the context they’re practiced in, regardless of the status of the people involved, regardless of the absence or presence of genuine love and respect. If Vine’s explanation is true, then homosexuality is the only sexual sin in all of scripture that is in fact only sometimes sinful, but sometimes legitimate, if you’ll only read between the lines of the scripture and examine the cultural context.
And in asking us to do so, Vines is asking way too much, while offering way too little evidence that such a request could ever be legitimate.
Tomorrow we’ll examine Vine’s assessment of Paul’s term “arsenokoite” found in I Corinthians and I Timothy. Please join us.