Have We Misunderstood Paul on Homosexuality?

21 July 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

This new book by Mike Wittmer is going to get a positive review in due time. Today, however, I just want to highlight one of the chapters. Each chapter deals with a “urban legend” of theology. So, for example, chapter 14 addresses the idea that “My Body Is a Temporary Residence for My Immortal Soul.” Chapter 19’s urban legend is the progressive canard “Jesus Never Spoke about Homosexuality.” Wittmer rightly points out that the red letters in the Bible don’t count more than the black letters. All letters matter. Moreover, what Jesus does say about marriage in the gospels shows consistency with the entire witness of the Bible about sexual ethics.

So does what the Apostle Paul says in places like Romans 1:18-32. Wittmer has a concise and well-argued section where he interacts with those who say we’ve misunderstood Paul:

Progressive commentators attempt to evade Paul’s words by saying he only opposes (1) pedophilia, in which men abuse boys; (2) the excessive, out-of-control lust found among some homosexuals; or (3) heterosexuals who act against their own sexual nature and commit homosexual acts. They say Paul has no concept of sexual orientation and was unaware of committed, same-sex unions; we cannot know what he might have thought about men marrying men or lesbians committing to monogamous lifelong relationships.

In response, (1) Paul includes more than pedophilia, as he mentions women having sex with women and men having sex with men. (2) Paul vehemently denounces homosexual acts and declares they arise from out-of-control lust. This does not mean he only oppose the out-of-control part and would accept homosexual acts that are ordered and natural. Consider how two men or two women attempt sexual union. What could be natural, proper, or orderly about that? In sum, if someone strongly condemns something, we should not take that as an invitation to attempt a milder version. If someone burglarizes my house, sets it on fire, paints profanity on my driveway, chops down my trees, turfs my lawn, kicks my dog, and smashes my Precious Moments figurine, I will not say, ‘Well, that was excessive!’ It would be, but that is not the main problem. All of it is bad.

(3) Paul lived before Freud articulated the category of sexual orientation, yet the ancient Greeks understood the concept. Plato’s Symposium noted some men were only attracted to other men. Paul would have known this and would have met effeminate malakoi who looked the part. Furthermore, the ancient world did have some committed, adult same-sex relationships. Plato mentions Agathon and Pausanias in his Symposium and Ctessipus and Cleinias in Euthydemus. Xenophon said the sacred band of Thebes consisted of men who lived together ‘like married people.’ Juvenal mentioned a man who was given in marriage to another man and said the day may soon come when the state recognizes male-to-male marriages. In the fourth century, Roman emperors Constantius II and Constans passed a law that prohibited a man from marrying another man ‘as if he were a woman.’ Would such a law need to be passed if gay marriage was not on some people’s minds?

Paul’s first century world is not so different from ours today. His words map directly onto our cultural moment. For those who nevertheless believe God blesses same-sex marriage, please answer this question: If God wanted to say homosexual activity was sin, how could he do it in a way you would accept? If there is nothing God could say against homosexual practice that you would not dismiss as a vestige of an ancient, out-of-date culture, then why bother to read the Bible on this subject? You already know God’s mind, independently of what he says in Scripture. There is no way God can change your mind. You have made sure of that. (pp.114-115)