- Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?
- Was Sodom the First All-Gay City?
- Sex at Sodom: Was it “Homosexual”?
- Does Leviticus Actually Condemn Same-Sex Intercourse?
- Leviticus 18: A Text Dripping with Blood
- Leviticus 18 & 20 Revisited…for Real
- Are Leviticus 18 & 20 Still Relevant for Christians?
- Homosexuality in Ancient Rome & Why It Matters
- Was “Homosexuality” Unknown to Paul?
- Biological Influences on Same Sex Attraction According to Rome
- Jesus & Homosexuality
- Jesus, Sexuality, & Same-Sex Love
- Jesus, Unconditional Love, & LGBT
- Celibate Gay Christians
- Homosexuality & Romans 1
- Does Romans 1 Only Prohibit Illicit Same Sex Activity?
- Maybe Romans 1:24-27 Is About Purity But Not Sin?
- Is Romans 1 About Straight People Having Gay Sex?
- Does Romans 1 Address Specific Idolatrous Forms of Homosexuality?
- Paul Prohibits Homosexual Sex–But Why?
The last argument against the traditional view is the best. I’ll never forget first coming across it as I was studying Romans 1 in my office and wondering, “If this argument is correct, then the conservative church has a lot of rethinking to do.”
The argument goes like this. Paul does indeed prohibit all forms of homoeroticism. The question is why? Why does Paul think it’s wrong for men to have sex with men? Because this would force another man to give up his manly honor to act like a mere woman. I hope you can start to smell the implications brewing here. But if not, here’s a clear summary from Bernadette Brooten:
“Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations” (Brooten, Love Between Women, 216, 302, 303).
So, if the church wants to take Paul’s words as authoritative, then it should also take Paul’s reason for those words as authoritative: women are passive, inferior, and have no right leaving their kitchens to play the role of the man; likewise, men have no right cooking, cleaning, and playing the passive role in sex—among other things that were designed for mere women to do.
Another major proponent of this view is James Brownson, who in his landmark work concludes: “Male-male sex in particular was ‘unnatural’ because it degraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245). This was “inherently shameful and degrading for a man to be reduced to the status of a female by playing the passive role in sexual intercourse” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245).
Again, if we take Paul’s words as authoritative, then it seems consistent to take his moral logic as authoritative as well.
But before we lock our wives in the kitchen with their bonnets and ankle-length dresses, are we sure that such shameful feminization of men was lurking behind Paul’s moral logic?
The feminization of the passive partner is well documented in the Greco-Roman culture. Suetonius sums up the view nicely, perhaps crudely, when he mentions Julius Caesar as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman,” referring to the Caesar’s role as the passive partner with the Bithynian king Nicomedes (Suet. Jul. 52.3). Cicero mocks Mark Antony for being a “common whore” and later a “wife” to Curio on the same grounds (Cic. Phil. 2.44-45). The impetus behind these critiques reveals the same assumption: Men should act like the superior men that they are, while women should remain in their inferior role as the receptive partner. When a man acts like a woman in intercourse, he looses his man card.
But does Paul share these assumptions? Does he believe, with Josephus, that women are “in all things inferior to the man” (Josephus, Ap. 2.24)? Would he condemn gay sex because it stripped the passive partner of his male honor, lowering him to the status of a mere woman?
When I look at Romans 1, it’s not so clear. Paul grounds his moral logic in the creation account in Genesis 1-2 but does not clearly talk about the passive partner being feminized, nor does he inject his argument with all sorts of Neanderthal assumptions about female inferiority.
We could still salvage this argument if we could show that Paul elsewhere maintains such gender hierarchy, that women are inferior and passive to men and that men should therefore remain active in sexual encounters. A quick survey of Paul’s view of women—without opening up another debate—shows that contrary to the Jewish and Greco-Roman hierarchical view of gender, Paul exhibits a radically high view of women.
For instance, Paul breaks cultural codes by calling several women “co-workers” (Rom 16:3-4; Phil 4:3), “workers in the Lord” (Rom 16:6, 12) deacons (Rom 16:1-2; 1 Tim 3:11), prophets (1 Cor 11:5; cf. Acts 21:9), and he quite possibly calls Phoebe a “patron” (Rom 16:2) and Junia an “apostle” (Rom 16:7). In Christ there is neither “male nor female” (Gal 3:28) and women have just as much authority over their husbands’ bodies as their husbands have over theirs (1 Cor 7:3-5)—a revolutionary statement in its own right. Even if Paul advocates for different roles within the household (e.g. Eph 5:22-33), he commands men to self-sacrificially serve their wives and never, contra Josephus, suggests that females should submit to their husbands because they are inferior to men. Instead, Paul grounds these different but equal roles in the trinity.
Now, this is not the place to argue for or against women in pastoral leadership. Both complimentarian and egalitarian readings of Paul (most of them, at least) would acknowledge Paul’s strikingly high view of women in light of his cultural context. Yet Brownson and Brooten assume that Paul agrees with his Greco-Roman contemporaries that women are inferior and that this belief drives his moral logic for prohibiting homoerotic activity.
Unless Paul comes out and says explicitly that homoerotic behavior reduces the status of men in Romans 1—which many Greco-Roman writers did, but Paul does not—then there is little exegetical merit in assuming that homosexual activity “degraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” and thereby clothing him in “shame” (Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245). It does seem that Paul believed that homoerotic activity confused God-given gender roles. But there is no reason to assume that Paul upheld a socially constructed hierarchy in these roles that assumed a low view of women. Paul believed that women—like Priscilla and Junia—were equal to men.