I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion on same-sex marriage from a Christian perspective. More specifically, I was asked to comment on this issue from Romans 1. Given the popular nature of the discussion, I had to be very careful with the way I phrased things, and so I ended up with the following notes which guided what I said. I'd appreciate any thoughts or responses.
The Letter of Romans: Two Stories
Paul’s letter to the Romans tells two stories. The first one begins right at the beginning, in 1:1-16. The first thing to realise, is that first story is the story of good news and it is God’s good news. It is the story of God, who has had a vision for humanity all along. And God made promises to certain individuals and nations, which were told through his messengers in the holy Scriptures. And God’s climactic plan, is ultimately and fully realised in the coming of God’s own Son. This Son was an heir to the people of God through King David. But his true identity as God’s son, was boldly indicated and validated through the resurrection of Jesus by God’s Spirit. And this news is for the whole world, because God’s promises relate to the whole world. And thus everyone is invited to participate in God’s restorative vision for the whole cosmos, and especially humanity - that group that is called to represent Him to others and creation. The story also tells of Paul, who is a slave (a metaphor of pure allegiance and devotion) to God’s purposes and also the Roman churches, who have embraced this fantastic news about who God is, and what God is doing.
BUT - to fully realise the extent of God’s covenant faithfulness to humanity, one has to tell the darker side of this story. The story of how humanity lost its way. And that is the topic of 1:18-32. This is the story of how things are NOT meant to be. It is a tragic story of exchanging truth for lies, of exchanging hope for despair, and of the distortion of God’s creative efforts and design for humanity.
God’s response to humanities disregard for his design and intention is not to enforce his wil. Rather God’s response is to allow us the freedom to make our own decisions, even though God himself is calling and inviting humanity into another way of life. God warns that there are consequences for disregarding his pattern and design, and that is why Paul gives a list of 22 or more, different activities that show that humanity has departed from God’s way. Doing evil, covetousness, malice; being full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossiping, slanderers, God-haters, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventors of evil, rebellion toward parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartless, ruthless.
Yes, Paul does mention same-sex activity a few verses earlier (he had no clue what an “orientation” was, he was interested in practices that distort God’s design). However, Paul is not focussing on one group of individuals, but rather telling the story of the many and varied activities that humans do that are contrary to God’s design. By including all these vices, Paul reminds us that, “we all have sinned, and done what is wrong in his sight,” and we all have to make changes to our lives. AND there is NO-ONE that is morally superior to anyone else. We are all broken human beings, being called by God back together, so that together we can become a mosaic of God’s gracious intervention, so that we rebuild, and re-imagine ourselves as God’s image bearers walking in the trajectory of Christ.
And that is what the book of Romans sets out to do. So that sets the context in which to analyse Paul’s statements regarding same-sex activity.
Romans 1:26-27 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.
The most important element of this discussion is what Paul means by “natural” and “unnatural.” He is not referring to genetics but rather to God’s design for humanity and creation. God’s natural design is for one man and one women to be brought together into a covenantal relationship of mutual benefit and edification. Unnatural activity is thus anything that goes against this design.
I want to read you two quotes. The first is from Dan O. Via, a New Testament scholar.
Perhaps most importantly he regards same-sex relations as contrary to nature (1:26-27), contrary to the order of the world as created by God.
The second quote is from Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar.
There is no need to belabour the obvious point that the classification of same-sex intercourse among vices is characteristic of Paul (Rom. 1:24-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11). The issue in regard to such texts and the present-day struggle of communities with homosexuality is not so much an exegetical as a hermeneutical one.
I am not quoting these two scholars just because they agree with what I've said above. I am quoting them because both Johnson and Via argue for acceptability of same-sex relationships. They do so not on the basis of any ambiguity in Scripture. They both concur that scripture is clear in its injunction against same-sex activity. They do so on the basis that they do not deem these passages relevant to contemporary Christian ethics.
Whereas I would argue, that the Genesis stories set the trajectory for human relationships, confirmed and validated by Jesus in his discussions of marriage, and negatively illustrated by the variety of New Testament authors which note where and how humanity has departed from God’s design. And we cannot just pick and choose which parts of God’s vision we want to embrace.
So what does this have to do with a conversation on same-sex marriage? Well, if Scripture prohibits a key activity that would consummate a marriage between two people, then it follows that for Christians who accept the authority of Scripture, it is not possible to be in same-sex marriage.