Unconditional Love

    May 2000

    "Under the Judgment of Scripture"
    What Paul Had in Mind in His Passages on Homosexuality
    By Victor Paul Furnish

    In The Moral Teaching of Paul, Victor Paul Furnish examines the Greco-Roman criticism of homosexuality in St. Paul's day and concludes:

    Finally, the writers of this period who were concerned about homosexual behavior seemed convinced that it necessarily involved one person's exploitation of another. Stoicism, especially, maintained that one's life must be conducted in accord with the immutable law of nature and in ways appropriate to the created order. The influence of this popular philosophical movement was widespread, and is detectable not only in several of the writers quoted above but also, as we shall see, in the teaching of Paul. The physiological complementarity of male and female and the obvious necessity of heterosexual intercourse for the purposes of procreation would have seemed to many adequate proof that intercourse between persons of the same sex was "unnatural," a violation of "the law of nature." Thus, Plutarch's Daphnaeus admitted [in Plutarch's Dialogue on Love], even when both parties consent to homosexual intercourse, that the passive one is bound to be violated. He becomes what he is not "weak" and "effeminate," and his weakness and effeminacy are more demeaning than that of a woman because they do not belong to the role nature has assigned him. On this view, if there is exploitation of one person by another even where there is consent, how much more where there is none? One thinks of the Sodomites' attempted rape of Lot's visitors, of the actions of a debauched master toward his slaves, or of lustful men toward helpless youth. (The point had not been lost on Philo, who, in the passage quoted above [On Abraham 135-136], mentions "the sex nature which the active partner shares with the passive.") To discerning ethical teachers in the Greco-Roman world it seemed just as obvious that homosexual practices were necessarily exploitative as that they were inevitably born of insatiable lust.

    Like Robin Scroggs, Furnish believes that Paul's passages on homosexuality were only meant to refer to youthful, effeminate call-boys "who offered their bodies for pay to older men," and the men who slept with them.

    Paul, in common with the traditions by which he was influenced and in accord with the wisdom of his day, saw the wickedness of homosexual practice to inhere in its lust and its perversion of the natural order. In this connection, however, we must remember that it was the more degraded and exploitative forms of pederasty that the Apostle and his contemporaries had in view when they condemned homosexual practice. Paul, like many of his contemporaries, doubtless regarded such behavior as a matter of deliberate choice born of an insatiable sexual appetite. The moral legacy Paul had received from Hellenistic Judaism certainly left no doubt in his mind that pederasty was a specifically Gentile vice and one of the numerous signs of pagan idolatry. In Romans 1 we have seen homosexual intercourse named as one of the dreadful consequences of the Gentiles' refusal to receive the world as it was created and their own lives within it as gifts from God.

    But what Paul accepted as a matter of course about homosexual behavior, we can no longer take for granted. The modern behavioral sciences are still baffled by many aspects of this phenomenon; yet there is broad agreement on a number of points. To begin with, one must not acknowledge that homosexuality is an exceedingly complex phenomenon. The description and analysis of it offered by ancient writers are as outdated as their descriptions of the bodily organs. The present scientific consensus is that homosexuality has multiple causes. Important psychological and social factors, and perhaps even some biological conditions, play a role in the formation of a person's "gender identity." Moreover, the forms and evidences of homosexuality are now understood to be many and varied. Modern students of hte subject are reluctant to speak of homosexuality and heterosexuality as mutually exclusive categories. They much prefer to speak of homosexual and heterosexual aspects in the sexual orientation of a given individual. They refer to "latent" and "active" homosexuality, and allow that the latter can manifest itself in different ways, some of them more and some of them less socially acceptable. It is also clear that homosexual behavior does not necessarily involve the sexual exploitation of another person, and that it does not necessarily take the bizarre forms that were so evident in Paul's time. . . .

    Paul's fundamental concerns about homosexual practice (as he understood it) are as valid in the twentieth century as they were in the first. When Paul referred to homosexual behavior he was illustrating the wretchedness of the human condition where there has been no acknowledgment that life is God's gift and that one's existence stands always under God's claim. To Paul it represented a rebellion against the Creator and his creation, a surrender to one's own lusts, the debasement of one's own true identity and the exploitation of another's. It is no longer possible to share Paul's belief that homosexual conduct always and necessarily involves these things. But it can be said with certainty that whenever a homosexual or heterosexual relationship does involve one or more of these, it stands under the judgment of scripture.

    The above passages are reprinted from Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, Second Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985).

    Related Link

    Scroggs, Robin. Paul's Condemnations: "Not . . . Homosexuality in General, nor Even Pederasty in General" [Unconditional Love]

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