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Five Guidlines for
Romans 1 as a
HOMOPHOBIA AND HERMENEUTICS: ROMANS 1
Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Hanks
Introduction: Some Common Convictions about the Bible
In many areas, how we interpret the Bible depends a great deal on what we understand the
Bible to be. Some of the common convictions about the Bible are the following:
teaches, but nevertheless requiring careful interpretation as a guide for modern living;
- inspired by God, containing unique, authentic witness to God's liberating acts in
history (Israel's Exodus from Egypt; Jesus' incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection)
but requiring discerning use and careful interpretation as a guide for contemporary life;
- a work of purely human genius (comparable to the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine,
Aquinas, Shakespeare, Luther, Darwin, Marx, and Freud), but not infallible, and hence
requiring highly selective use and careful interpretation as a source of wisdom today.
- a highly influential work of patriarchal male genius, used historically to support
oppression and violence of all sorts (anti-scientific bigotry, divine right of kings, war,
colonization, slavery, anti-semitism, racism and segregation, economic injustice and
exploitation, subjection of women, and violence against sexual minorities)--and hence to
be carefully studied and interpreted, and then unmasked, discredited, and refuted, as
hostile to authentic human liberation and welfare.
Such views of the Bible, of course, are quite contradictory, but what no educated person
would deny is that in dealing with these texts, from ancient historical contexts and distant
cultures (written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), careful interpretation is essential.
Here our purpose is not to resolve the profound questions about the origin and nature of the
Bible, but simply to outline commonly accepted guidelines for interpreting biblical affirmations.
GUIDELINES FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION IN SEXUAL QUESTIONS
they apply to controversial modern questions about human sexuality? This is an area
neglected in almost all scholarly works on biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics in our
neoplatonized religious traditions (Brian Ingraffia (1995).
ancient literature like the Bible in matters we call "sexual" is much more complex than we might
imagine--especially if we must rely on translations and paraphrases that seek to clarify matters
for impatient modern readers. Not only is "homosexuality" a modern concept (19th century)
and a word that never occurs in the Bible's original languages. Even "sexuality" is an 18th
century concept: the original Hebrew and Greek have no word for "sex/sexuality" (as may be
quickly confirmed by noting that the King James and other older translations have not a single
reference to "sex" or "sexuality"). Scientists still are not sure what causes "heterosexuality,"
but we know that both heterosexuality and bisexuality are 20th century concepts and terms.
So strictly speaking, the Bible is totally silent about "homosexuality"--strictly speaking, it
doesn't even have a word to say about "sex"! (David M. Halperin and others, 1990).
are self-deluded: "ethics" and "morals" are ancient Greek philosophical categories and terms
that never occur in the Bible (despite their ubiquitous presence in Christian writing, both
scholarly and popular). Even the Ten "Commandments" (literally "words") are never described
or presented in the Bible as "ethical absolutes"--despite common claims from academics who
should know better.
instead to "house/household," which describes any human grouping living under a common
roof (or tent!). Thus, the old King James translated literally and correctly Paul's promise to the
Philippian jailer: "Thou shalt be saved and thy house" (Acts 16:31; NIV "household"). And in
Romans 16 the Apostle Paul describes and greets supportively 10 women and 19 men in
every conceivable living arrangement (only three of which included married couples). Hence,
we cannot make a simple one-to-one equation between a modern nuclear "family" and the
often extended households in the ancient world.
groom, symbolized by a ring, in a church or government building, with a clerical or
governmental official presiding; whereas in patriarchal biblical culture, marriage commonly
involved an arrangement in which the groom's father purchased the bride from her father,
perhaps, accompanied by a banquet (Genesis 24; John 2). "Adultery" in the patriarchal
culture of the Bible most commonly refers to a property offense against the husband, not a
betrayal of one's spouse (since no vows were exchanged, there was no "infidelity"). And
"divorce," (since "marriage" was not a concern of state or church), involved at most a simple
unilateral written statement (almost always from the male), not our often complicated legal
process involving both parties, with lawyers and judges.
used whenever we attempt to interpret the Bible (or any ancient literature): simple one-to-one
equations of terms and concepts cannot be taken for granted.
language of the Bible (like most literature, both ancient and modern), is highly euphemistic--
referring to sexual matters in ambiguous and veiled expressions. Genesis (4:1) says that
Adam "knew" Eve, and she brought forth a child. The men of Sodom sought to "know" the two
angel visitors (Genesis 19:5). The Hebrew word here ("know",yada`) occurs 943 times in the
Bible, but only ten times as a euphemistic reference to what we would call "sex." Romans 1:26
refers to women acting sexually "against nature" without specifying the act(s) involved.
Romans (13:13) and Hebrews (13:4) speak of "bed(s)" to describe what we would call "sex."
However, when Jesus speaks of two men together in a "bed" (Luke 17:34), many prefer not to
see any sexual connotation. One modern version even obscures the clear Greek reference to
two men in bed together, while maintaining the reference to two "women" grinding grain (Luke
While ancient and traditional cultures tend to be much more euphemistic in referring to sexual
matters, even the most sophisticated moderns tend to fall into such speech patterns
frequently: he/she "slept with" so and so. Contemporary materials attempting to teach "Safer
Sex" have every reason to be explicit and clear, but also in this modern literary genre,
examples of euphemistic language can almost always be found.
3. PRESCIENTIFIC AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL. Biblical language in what we call the
"sexual" areas is prescientific and phenomenological--describing things "as they appear" to
the observer and in popular language, not with modern scientific precision and technical
terminology. For centuries scholars have been discovering and recognizing that this is true in
other areas: astronomy, geography, biology and medicine. Despite the proof-texting of 16th
century theologians, we have known since Galileo that the earth is not flat and that heaven is
not a metal dome (Genesis 1:6-8); the Apostle Paul did not preach his Gospel to Native
Americans or the Chinese, despite Colossians 1:23; and scientists with microscopes can now
see many seeds smaller than the mustard seed of Jesus' parable (Mark 4:31). As scientific
studies in medicine and psychology developed in the 19th century, soon everyone had to
recognize that we believe with the brain and not the "heart", despite Romans 10:9-10, and that
our capacity for compassion is not actually located in our bowels or kidneys, despite texts like
language by providing scientifically informed modern equivalents. Thus the NIV has Jesus
rebuke his disciples for having a "closed mind" (bigotry!) instead of the "hardness of heart"
referred to in the original Greek (Mark 6:52). If obscurantists really took the Bible literally in all
scientific areas, they would have open heart surgery performed on them to cure their closed-
minded bigotry! The necessity of prescientific, phenomenological language is commonly
illustrated from the story of Joshua's "long day" (Joshua 10:12-13). Had Joshua really
commanded that the earth stand still instead of the sun, no one would have had the slightest
idea what he was talking about until the time of Galileo.
Although the Bible refers to the sky as a solid dome ("firmament"), would even the most
obscurantist fundamentalist parents want their children to be taught cosmology and astronomy
from the Bible? (see Paul H. Seely, "The Firmament and the Water Above," Westminster
Theological Journal 1991:227-240).
The difficulty of using the Bible for modern questions in the area of "sexuality" is thus
complicated by the fact that the original Hebrew and Greek languages employed are
euphemistic, prescientific and phenomenological in describing what we would call "sexual".
Had the Apostle Paul actually written in the first century that no "homosexual" would ever
inherit the kingdom of God, no one would have had any idea what he meant until the late 19th
century--when the new word was coined to express the modern scientific perceptions about
sexual orientation (which even many traditionalists now seem to accept, and then presume
that Biblical writers knew all about it too).
4. LITERARY GENRE. Another major factor is the "literary genre"--the type of literature in
which the language occurs. Thus, when Jesus referred to the mustard seed as the "smallest
seed", he was not giving a modern scientific lecture on the sizes of seeds--it was a kind of
sermon illustration, a "parable" to make clear what God's kingdom is like: small at the
beginning. The vast majority of Biblical references to what we would call "sexual" matters
actually occur in love poetry (Song of Songs) or in letters (1 Corinthians 5-7), and letters
include rhetorical elements such as "vice lists" and illustrations that are not even commands or
laws, much less "ethical absolutes." The significance of literary genre for the use of the Bible
in sexual questions is evident from the fact that the most-cited text used to condemn modern
homosexuals occurs in a letter (Romans), as a kind of sermon illustration in a lengthy
rhetorical argument and missionary appeal. The precise point of this illustration, how it relates
to the broader context, and where the relevant context ends, remain points of major dispute.
deal of diversity of Biblical perspectives--even in the areas we would call "sexual." For
instance, we find quite diverse Biblical teaching on eunuchs, polygamy, virginity, widows, and
divorce--and the so-called levirate "marriage" commanded in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 (though
always practiced by one denomination in Africa), would produce an enormous scandal if
obeyed literally in churches in Europe and the Americas. The Biblical canon includes literature
reflecting an enormous span of historical, geographical and cultural contexts (Hebrews 1:1).
Recognition of the rich diversity in Biblical texts speaking of matters we would call "sexual" in
no wise diminishes their value or reduces their teaching to some foggy, ill-defined "relativism."
Rather (as in the economic sphere) diversity may be understood as contributing to a growing
"theological pie"--containing a wealth of insights for addressing the complexity and variety of
modern life contexts.
unworthy books. Could it not rather be to include so much diversity that we are liberated from
narrow legalistic ideologies, forced to rely on the Holy Spirit and taught to think things through
afresh for our own context? The Apostle Paul (a missionary with multicultural background and
vast cross-cultural experience), emphasized that genuine submission to God's will results in a
renewing of our minds--not a closing of them (Romans 12:1-2)! Certainly that should be the
result of any serious effort to listen carefully and interpret for the modern world all that the
Bible has to say about those areas and questions we would call "sexual."
TEST CASE: ROMANS 1:26-27
negatively ("against nature") same gender sexual acts between women. However, scholars
now point out that the text probably does not refer to female homoeroticism at all, but to
common heterosexual acts that Paul and his contemporaries would have interpreted as
"against nature," especially anal intercourse, but perhaps also other acts avoiding
procreation: oral sex, mutual masturbation, and sexual relations during menstruation (Lev 28:
19; 20:18; mixing semen and blood). The text might even refer to women having sex with
animals (prohibited in Lev 18:23; 20:15-16). James E. Miller (1995; 1997ab) argues that the
"likewise" joining Romans 1:26 and 27 refers to the same kind of act (probably anal sex,
misplacing semen, avoiding procreation), and that we err in imposing on the text our modern
concept of "homosexuality" to link the two verses (cf. Brooten 1996:248-250, note 99).
However, even if Romans 1:26 were to be interpreted (contrary to the church fathers in the
first four centuries and the most informed modern scholarship) as referring to female
homoeroticism, it generally acknowledged to be the only text in the entire Bible that might
possibly be cited against lesbians.
to indulge in some kind of sex with other males. Paul probably refers to the prohibition of male
anal intercourse (unprotected!) in Leviticus 18 and 20, specifically in the form of paederasty
common in the gentile culture of his day (Miller 1995; 1997). Many scholars conclude that Paul
simply quotes Jewish prejudice as a rhetorical ploy in order to refute it as the letter proceeds
Other scholars, however, hold that while Paul may have intended a general or universal
condemnation of same gender sexual acts, that was not his main point and his sermon
illustration simply reflected the limitations of his prescientific patriarchal viewpoint (Brooten
1996). Hence we must interpret his affirmations "critically," or with wisdom to discern his
limited, prescientific viewpoint, while affirming perspectives that still have validity for modern
life. Such discerning interpretation and application of the Bible is commonly carried out in
other areas, whatever the theological or religious convictions of the interpreter.
Instead of limiting the investigation to question only Paul's intention ("exegesis," what the text
meant to the original author and readers), this alternative approach raises the more complex
question of how modern readers should respond to the text in the light of their scientific
understanding and different historical context ("hermeneutics").
An example of this alternative approach, focusing on hermeneutics instead of simple exegesis,
is provided in The Anchor Bible Dictionary article on Romans. There Charles D. Myers Jr.
comments (1992 V:827):
It is vital to note that Paul's presuppositions about homosexuality in Romans 1 are similar to
those of his contemporaries. Paul's choice of the active verbs "exchanged" (1:26) and "giving
up" (1:27) assumes that homosexuality is an activity freely chosen. Paul's use of the phrase
"consumed with passion" (1:27) reveals the belief that homosexual behavior is associated with
insatiable lust and unbridled passion. And Paul's remarks concerning the giving up of "natural
(heterosexual) intercourse" (1:26,27) in favor of "unnatural" (1:26) understand homosexuality
as a violation of the natural order. It is also important to note that Paul describes
homosexuality as the consequence of idolatry.
Richard B. Hays (1986) refers to Paul's explanation of the cause of homosexuality as a
"mythico-historical event" (1986:200). Arland J. Hultgren (1994:319) explains that Paul is not
speaking of individuals, but of the behavior of pagan gentiles as a whole, with the dominant
verbs in 22-27 in past tense (aorists), as though Paul is speaking of something that happened
long ago in some primeval time. Peter Reiss, an evangelical Anglican theologian develops a
similar hermeneutical approach, because: The crux of the matter is that what Paul
unqualifiably terms `unnatural', science shows to be, in all probability in many cases,`natural'....
Paul does condemn homosexual acts in Romans 1, but he does so from a particular
understanding of sexuality which we today do not fully agree with (1994:40).
This hermeneutical approach (moving beyond questions about the author's intent to focus on
the signifiance for modern readers) to texts referring to same-gender sexual acts was
pioneered by Gerald T. Sheppard, a biblical scholar of pentecostal background (1985, 1989,
1992). Sheppard's studies stress the importance of the wisdom literature and the biblical
category of wisdom (wise counsel for specific historical contexts), as opposed to Greek
philosophical categories, such as "ethics," "morals" and "ethical absolutes." The
hermeneutical approach simply makes clear that whether the Bible actually teaches that the
earth is flat is irrelevant for the modern reader. We learn in school (common wisdom) that,
despite superficial appearances, the earth is not flat. Proving that certain biblical authors
taught the earth to be flat does not establish that the earth is flat--and people who spend a lot
of time and energy demonstrating that biblical authors so taught only succeed in discrediting
themselves and the Bible.
Similarly, in the sexual area, an interpreter may insist
by worshipping pagan idols;
- that all are born heterosexual, but can change their sexual orientation as easily as
they choose a different pair of shoes;
- that only heterosexual relations can express love, while all homosexual relations simply
express egotistical lust;
- that for all humans and animals only heterosexual acts are "natural," while all
homosexual acts are always "unnatural."
the Bible and the interpreter who obstinately espouses such ignorance.
That is not to say that Jesus' popular illustration of the mustard seed, or Paul's illustration
about unclean gentile sexual acts are totally false. The mustard seed was not an elephant--its
smallness served quite well for Jesus' purposes. And gentile sexuality was commonly
characterized by idolatry, lust, risky sexual experimentation, prostitution and paedophilia. For
the rhetorical purposes of their sermonic discourses, both Jesus' and Paul's illustrations were
sufficiently accurate. But Jesus was not giving a modern scientific lecture on the size of seeds,
and Paul was not giving a modern scientific lecture on human sexual orientations and
activities. Those who ignore modern scientific literature where such information is given and
pretend that they need no enlightenment except from the Bible end up not even knowing how
to tie their shoes. To pretend that depths of ignorance represent the height of piety only plays
into the hands of those who reject the Bible and faith as relics harmful to human welfare today.
Hermeneutical approaches, however, need not deny all validity or normativity even to those
texts that negatively refer in some way to same-gender sexual acts:
historical context where procreation needed to be maximized, the prohibitions in
Leviticus of male-male anal sex may have been much wiser than the multiple-partner
sex orgies celebrated in idolatrous pagan fertility cults;
- in Roman colonies where slave trade, paedophilia and prostitution constituted the
common context and expressions of male-male sexuality, the pauline inclusion of the
"male-bed" as a passing item in two vice lists may still provide a valid sermon point--but
hardly an ethical absolute or substitute for modern scientific understanding of
homosexual and bisexual orientations.
- in Rome itself, where decadent imperial oppressors (almost all heterosexual or
bisexual) ignored their wives and indulged in sexual experimentation, drunken orgies,
idol worship and paedophilia, Paul invoked the Greek philosophical category of "nature"
as a skillful rhetorical device. That still may represent a kind of sexual wisdom for the
However, wisdom for 90% of humanity does not constitute an ethical absolute for 100% at all
times and all places. A doctor may wisely inject penicillin to counteract pneumonia in 90% of
the population; but should she obstinately insist on such an injection for the 10% of the
population allergic to penicillin, she may find herself hauled into court with a malpractice suit.
The attempt to use the Bible's few references to same-gender sexual activity as proscriptions
applicable to all modern homosexuals should also be condemned as malpractice. And in fact,
at last this is happening. In 1994 in California, when a Baptist pastor invoked the Bible and
tried to "change the sexual orientation" of a young man, the result was instead depression and
suicide. This pastoral malpractice led to a legal suit resulting in the pastor's conviction for
sexual minorities, eventually, the exegetical approach to the disputed biblical texts (suggesting
alternative interpretations) will prove convincing to everyone, as they now are to many biblical
scholars who have researched and written books in this area. However, a growing number of
well-informed persons know that the earth is not flat, however goes the debate about the
interpretation of six biblical texts. Or, in terms of human sexuality:
- sexual orientations, unknown to Paul, do exist (Hays 200);
- not everyone has the same love-map in his/her head;
- homosexuals can no more change the love-map in their head than right-handed
persons can decide to be come left-handed;
- the kind of loving sexual relationship a person has normally results from the kind of
love-map one's head contains--not from the kind of God/gods one/s ancestors
- seeds can be much smaller and nature much more complex than one might imagine
were one to limit one's investigation to a few isolated texts in the Bible.
Hence, the value and importance of the hermeneutical approach to the disputed biblical texts.
Today both Christians who believe in the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible and
atheists who think the Bible is a major threat to human welfare actually agree on quite a lot: for
instance that the earth is not flat, and how to tie their shoes. If they are well-informed they can
also agree that left-handed persons and homosexuals should be encouraged to live out their
lives responsibly, wisely, justly, lovingly, according to their distinctive capacities. And that
families, religious communities, and societies should not demand or encourage them to go
through life pretending to be what they are not, nor trying to change what cannot be changed.
The hermeneutical approach can facilitate an alliance of the ideologically diverse forces
struggling against homophobia. To work effectively in this common struggle against
oppression it is not essential that everyone become a fundamentalist Christian or a convinced
atheist. One can firmly believe that bisexuals don't really exist (dogma of the a-bisexualists), or
(alternatively) that everyone is bisexual (dogma of the pan-bisexualists). A simpler creed is
- whatever the Bible said, the earth is not flat;
- gay is good; lesbian is lovely; bisexual is beautiful.
as reflected in scores of biblical texts and contrary to Galileo's discoveries (Paul Seely 1991;
Barton, Stephen C. (1994). "Is the Bible Good News for Human Sexuality? Reflection on
Method in Biblical Interpretation," Theology & Sexuality 1: 42-54.
Brooten, Bernadette J. (1996). Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female
Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Davies, Margaret (1995). "New Testament Ethics and Ours: Homosexuality and Sexuality in
Romans 1:26-27," Biblical Interpretation 3/3: 315-31.
Goss, Robert (1993). Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. San Francisco:
Halperin, David M. and others (1990). Before Sexuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Hanks, Thomas D. (1998) Are There Clobber Texts in the Bible. St. Louis: Other Sheep.
Hays, Richard B. (1986). "Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell's
Exegesis of Romans 1." The Journal of Religious Ethics 14:184-215.
Helminiak, Daniel A. (1994). What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. San Francisco:
(1997). "Response: Ethics, Biblical and Denominational: A Response to Mark D. Smith."
Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65/4:855-59.
Hultgren, Arland J. (1994). "Being Faithful to the Scriptures: Romans 1:26-27 as a Case in
Point," Word and World XV/3:315-325.
Ingraffia, Brian D. (1995) Postmodern theory and biblical theology. Cambridge: Cambridge
Martin, Dale. (1995). "Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32," Biblical
Interpretation 3/3 (332-55).
Miller, James B. and Kenneth McCall, eds. (1990). The Church and Contemporary Cosmology.
Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon.
Miller, James E. (1995). "The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual?"
Novum Testamentum 35:1-11.
(1997) "Pederasty and Romans 1:27: A Response to Mark Smith," Journal of the American
Academy of Religion 65/4:861-866.
Myers, Charles D. (1992). "Romans, Epistle to the" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York:
Reiss, Peter. (1994). "Sexuality, Symbol, Theology and Culture: A Reply to Francis Bridger,"
Anvil 11/1: 29-43.
Seely, Paul H. (1991). "The Firmament and the Water Above," The Westminster Theological
(1997). "The Geogaphical Meaning of 'Earth' and 'Seas' in Genesis 1:10," The Westminster
Smith, Mark D. (1996). "Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, Journal
of the American Academy of Religion LXIV/2: 223-256.
Smith, Morton and R. Joseph Hoffmann, editors (1989). What the Bible Really Says. San
Sheppard, Gerald T. (1985). "The Use of Scripture within the Christian Ethical Debate
Concerning Same-Sex Oriented Persons," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 41/1&2: 13-16.
(1989) "Biblical Revelation and Human Sexuality," pp. 233-247 in Aids Issues, ed. David
Hallman. New York: Pilgrim.
(1992 "The Role of `Wisdom' in the Interpretation of Scripture," pp. 187-200 in Literary Theory
and Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. Tibor Fabiny. Hungary: Szeged.
Thiselton, Anthony C. (1992) New Horizons in Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Vasey, Michael (1995). Strangers and Friends: A new exploration of homosexuality and the
Bible. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Published by OTHER SHEEP: Multicultural Ministries with Sexual Minorities. Copyright 1998.
Write us for a list of other materials prepared especially for sexual minorities:
16768 Old Jamestown Rd. / Florissant, MO 63034-1409 / USA
Tel: (314) 355-2060; Fax: (314) 653-0657 / GIHerzog@aol.com
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