John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
This essay was presented at a conference of Seventh-Day Adventist Ministers in San Diego, CA, October 11, 2003. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
If the only form of homosexual activity of which Paul was aware was promiscuous and lustful, we can agree that what he observed expressed idolatry. But Cobb does not agree that the homosexual couples he knows, who, despite all social pressures, have remained faithful to one another through thick and thin, are behaving unnaturally or expressing idolatry. They do not illustrate Paul’s general point in any way. On the contrary, against great odds they provide just that model of Christian sexuality that is relevant to millions of others. That most of our churches reject them for their courage and steadfast faith is no credit to our churches.
The title sets the question of Christian evaluation of homosexuality in a different context from a title such as: “What does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?” The answer to that question would be, not very much, but what it does say is unrelievedly negative. (The only possible exception to this negativity is the depiction of the relation of David and Jonathan.) Hence, to answer the question of what the Bible says, there is no great advantage in deciding just which biblical words do, and which do not, refer specifically to homosexuality. All that is decided by that exercise is the number of biblical references. However few they may be, we will be left with the unquestioned reference in Romans 1, and with its unquestionably negative view. For some Christians, this is decisive. In their minds, if Paul viewed homosexuality as evil, then all Christians for all time must follow that view.
The title, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” allows a quite different approach. One can evaluate homosexuality without reference to the Bible and then juxtapose this evaluation, with that of the Bible. One might judge that the biblical authors were quite benighted on this topic as, of course, on many others. One who does this may simply have no interest in biblical authority. On the other hand, a Christian who adopts this position will call for the development of our theology and views of homosexuality based on what are judged to be more central and enduring biblical themes.
My position is closer to this second view than to the first. Most of us have moved away from specific teachings of Paul about women’s hair and male-female relations generally, and we take a quite different stance from his toward slavery. We have even separated ourselves from Jesus’ teaching on divorce. On all of these points we appeal to what we take to be much more fundamental teachings of Paul and Jesus.
Nevertheless, Paul’s statements about homosexuality call for a more serious wrestling with the texts than do his ideas about women’s hair. They are not incidental recommendations or casual reflections of the mores of his day. They play an important role in the development of his theology. Those who disagree with them, as do I, need to wrestle with them theologically. Must we reject Paul’s theology if we reject his views on this point? Or does Paul’s theology itself point us away from the use of this passage that is currently widely advocated? Can we formulate Paul’s argument convincingly without its blanket condemnation of all physical love between people of the same gender?
Since I do not pretend to have derived my understanding of homosexuality from the Bible, in this section let me describe the judgments to which I have come without reference to the Bible. This understanding has developed from scattered reading on the topic and personal acquaintance both with those who condemn all homosexual activity and those who are attracted primarily to members of the same sex. Among the latter, I know some who act on that attraction and others who have chosen celibacy. In all of this, I assume that I am like you. I make no claim to expertise, and, frankly, I am suspicious of those who do. I am open to more scientific information as well as personal testimony.
First, I gather that there is a wide spectrum of sexual orientation. For most people, attraction to members of the opposite sex is primary. For some of these, there may be virtually no attraction to any members of their own sex. For others, there is relatively little such attraction, but when denied access to members of the other sex, they may yet consider finding gratification with members of their own. For still others there is more such attraction, but this is stifled and denied as completely unacceptable. This can lead to the dynamic known as homophobia. Others know that they have some attraction to some members of both sexes but find little difficulty in limiting their actions to heterosexual relations. Others find both attractions strong, identify themselves as bisexuals, and act on both sets of desires. Others find little attraction to members of the opposite sex and hunger only for intimacy with members of their own gender. Some of these, nevertheless, for social reasons, marry members of the other sex. Some are celibate. Some act on their homosexual desires.
Second, I believe that for the great majority of those who are strongly homosexually inclined, this orientation was established very early in life. To what extent sexual orientation is biologically determined, and to what extent it is environmentally influenced, is important if we are asking questions about how children should be raised, but it has little importance for moral judgments about how one who is strongly oriented homosexually should live. Efforts to change such orientation have not been successful.
On the other hand, all kinds of social influences can make a difference in the behavior, and even the orientation, of that larger group of people who have some inclination in both directions.
Third, I judge that strongly homosexual orientation is a liability. This is overwhelmingly obvious in any patriarchal society. Life is certainly easier for one who conforms to the expected social patterns. For some homosexually inclined youth, the inability to fit that pattern is felt as so strong a handicap that they kill themselves. The suffering inflicted on some people by the social disapproval of homosexuality is so intense and so destructive that I believe the primary moral implication of examining the current situation is that society should become much more accepting. Cruelty of the sort that is now endemic cannot be morally condoned.
I believe that a healthy, sexually active, mutually supportive, heterosexual couple, deeply in love, completely faithful to one another, generating their own children, have fuller satisfaction more easily achieved than do others. Heterosexual vaginal intercourse has the potential of a richer mutuality than any other form. This constitutes an ideal or norm. Those who can fully realize this ideal are fortunate indeed.
There are many ways of falling short of this norm. Most heterosexual couples fall short of this ideal. In many instances males dominate females and use them. Not all such couples are deeply in love. Unfaithfulness is, sadly, not uncommon. Some who desire to have children are unable to do so. Some men are sometimes, or even often, impotent. Many marriages end in divorce, and second and third marriages are common.
Others do not marry. Some may choose celibacy. They may do so for excellent reasons. In some circumstances and for some purposes this is sometimes the best possible choice. But their lives still fall short of the ideal with respect to sexuality. Others are celibate against their wills. Many who do not marry are sexually promiscuous. They miss much of the potential richness of ideal marriage.
Those with predominantly homosexual sexual orientation cannot fail to fall short of the ideal. If they marry because of social pressure, the results lack many elements of the ideal marriage. If they are promiscuous, they suffer the same limitations as single heterosexuals who are promiscuous in addition to the huge social risks that are unique to them. If they bond with one another, society and the church condemn them.
But even in a completely accepting society, they would fall short of the ideal. Homosexual sex can never be as fully mutual as heterosexual vaginal sex at its best. Obviously, a homosexual couple cannot generate its own children.
Actually, it seems that almost everyone falls short of the ideal. Such failure, in one way or another, is the normal human condition. If the ideal is used to make people feel bad for their inability to realize it, it does more harm than good. It is then better simply to emphasize the multiplicity of possible lifestyles and try to help people make wise choices. Society is made up of imperfect people who will do better if they do not feel condemned for their imperfection. Instead of asking whether a particular lifestyle falls short of the ideal, it is better to ask what is the best solution for real people who have real limitations.
We need to ask this question about married women who are abused by their husbands, about single persons who are not in position to marry, about those who have been divorced, about those heterosexuals who have no access to members of the opposite sex, about men who are impotent. We need to ask this question about those who are strongly attracted to those of their own gender.
When we ask the latter question realistically, we must take into account the strong prejudice against homosexuality and the persecution of homosexuals. Sometimes concealment and deceit may be the best policy. But the response to this situation should be primarily to try to change it, and there are local contexts in which this change has occurred to a considerable degree. There the question can be simplified. The answer often seems to be that the happiest solution is for homosexuals to enter into long-term faithful relations in which they satisfy their sexual hungers in the context of growing mutual love and responsibility. Such unions will not have all the ideal elements of heterosexual marriage, but they can be far closer to that ideal than many heterosexual marriages actually are.
2. The Current Church Scene
I have recognized that my account of the factual situation is not derived from the Bible. On the other hand, the value judgments that I make about how society should relate to people, do, I believe, have a strong biblical basis. They can be derived from other sources as well. Most moral and religious traditions oppose both the encouragement of immorality, and also unnecessary cruelty. Discouraging faithful bonding encourages promiscuity on the one hand or imposes total sexual denial on the other. The New Testament certainly emphasizes special attention to, and concern for, those who are socially persecuted or handicapped. There can be little question that homosexuals have constituted one of the most oppressed groups in our society – some say, the most oppressed. If my account is fairly accurate, then I think my judgments about how we should act are also well-grounded in basic Christian moral teaching.
I have expressed my current judgments in order to acknowledge that I do not approach the scriptural texts in a completely neutral way. I am troubled by some of them, and especially by the message that the church has derived from them. Through the centuries, the church has supported harsh punishments of homosexuals. No Christian today wants to throw homosexuals like faggots on the bonfire, but we should not forget that our fathers in the faith sometimes did support such practices. The language derived from that practice still operates in large subcultures in our nation.
My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, like most, repudiates that kind of persecution. Our Discipline teaches that homosexuals, like all people, are of sacred worth. We support their full civil rights. As long as homosexually-inclined people do not act on their feelings, they are fully accepted by the church. They can become ordained ministers. There is no moral condemnation of orientation. This is certainly great progress over the attitudes and practices of an earlier day!
Nevertheless, my denomination teaches that for homosexually-inclined people to express their love for one another physically is incompatible with the gospel. If they are not capable of a healthy heterosexual marriage, they are told, the only lifestyle open to them that is “compatible with the gospel” involves lifelong sacrifice of the joys of sexual intimacy. In my view, especially in our present society in which human fulfillment and sexual fulfillment are so nearly identified, this remains cruel. It is not “gospel” or good news to homosexuals. The message is that one must choose between being a Christian and being sexually fulfilled, whereas those who are heterosexually oriented are encouraged to choose both.
I do not question that there is a vocation to celibacy. Some are called to work that requires the sacrifice of sexual fulfillment to higher goals. Roman Catholics to this day believe that this is true for their clergy, and, whereas I do not agree, I respect those who make this choice. Growing up on the mission field, I can testify that celibate missionaries could often identify with the people among whom they served better than could married ones. They could also take greater risks in pursuit of their mission. But this has very little to do with demanding celibacy of all those who are homosexually inclined.
The current teaching and practice are destructive in another way. In the typical congregation a single man or woman is warmly welcomed. The congregation does not inquire into their sexual behavior. If a man secretly engages in occasional promiscuous sex, this is unlikely to disturb his acceptance in the congregation. But if he establishes a long-term faithful relationship with another man, if the two live together and come to church together, many are likely to be scandalized. The couple is often made to feel unwelcome in the church.
This means that the influence of the church counts against faithful monogamous relations among homosexuals. Sometimes the church uses the promiscuity of active homosexuals as evidence of the unacceptability of homosexual activity in general. But in part that promiscuity is caused by the church’s teaching and practice. If the church really wished to encourage faithful relationships, it would honor and celebrate them in some way. It would undertake to provide social support of homosexual couples through difficult times as it does with heterosexual couples. My denomination forbids us to do so. How could we more clearly encourage promiscuity?
3. Romans 1:18-2:11
Now let us turn to Paul and in particular to the latter part of the first chapter of Romans along with the first part of Chapter 2. This passage is not primarily a matter of ethical teaching but rather a profound statement of part of Paul’s theological vision. To read it simply, or primarily, as a source of moral judgment on sexual matters is to misunderstand it fundamentally. To say that, in no way denies its significance as revealing Paul’s view of homosexuality.
The basic problem to which Paul addresses himself in this passage is the prevalence of sin and evil in the world created good by God. One standard theological answer has been to blame it all on Adam and Eve. In Chapter 5 Paul alludes to Adam as the one through whom sin came into the world, but here he approaches the matter differently. The fundamental problem, he tells us, is idolatry. The natural world witnesses to a single Creator, God. But human beings have preferred to worship parts of the creation instead of God.
This idolatry disrupts the order of the good creation. It distorts human attitudes, life-orientation, and behavior. Instead of acting honorably, people dishonor themselves. Society as a whole is distorted. Even those within the society who point out and condemn the sins of others are part of the evil. Paul reserves special condemnation for them in Romans 2:1-11.
Paul’s answer to the question as to what the vices are that characterize society as a whole including those who criticize other individuals within it is found in Romans 1:28-32. “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”
Now I find this overall account theologically profound, much more so that just blaming everything on Adam and Eve. When life is not oriented to God, everything goes wrong. We do know better. When Paul spoke of idolatry he no doubt meant worship in the presence of statues. These statues represented aspects of the world, such as fertility, or martial power, or wisdom, or healing.
Today, idolatry in this literal sense is not our major problem. Instead, we might take as examples of our idols, nations, wealth, sexual gratification, and so forth. Nation, wealth, and sexual gratification are all good things, but when life is oriented to them, it falls short of the service of God. Furthermore, this exaggerated commitment to limited goods distorts life in general throughout society. All kinds of vices follow from it. Today the very survival of civilization is at risk because of almost universal idolatries. Even those who recognize the distortions and condemn those who practice the various vices are in fact caught up in the corrupt system. We are in no position to act in a self-righteous way, and when we do so, we only condemn ourselves.
One very surprising aspect of Paul’s list of vices is that it is so very little interested in sex. In a church-context in which “immorality” has become almost synonymous with sexual immorality, we are reminded that the Bible simply does not share our preoccupation. To hunt for passages that spell out proper sexual behavior and abstract them from their much broader context is an unbiblical use of the Bible.
This, I believe, can be widely agreed upon as the structure of Paul’s argument. It can be formulated without reference to sexuality of any kind. Nevertheless, Paul does place homosexuality in a central place in his formulation of the argument. It has one, and only one, function. It illustrates how idolatry leads to unnatural behavior. “Unnatural” here means deviating from the good order established by God in creation. For Paul, as for most Hellenistic Jews of his time, and for many other Jews and Christians throughout the centuries, it was evident that God created male and female for one another. For women to behave with other women in a sexual way, and most especially for men to penetrate other men sexually, instead of women, fundamentally deviated from what God intended in creating male and female. For this reason, it was a particularly clear illustration of the distorting consequences of idolatry.
Furthermore, the idea that homosexuality is unnatural is not dependent only on the Bible. Atheists who look to science to guide them have often come to the same conclusion. Nature evolved sexual differentiation in order to reproduce living things in a new way. To employ such sexuality in ways disconnected from reproduction can be judged to be unnatural. These theories reinforce a widespread feeling of revulsion toward homosexuality in patriarchal societies. If one judges these feelings to be “natural,” the idea that homosexuality is unnatural gains still further support.
It is likely that a second reason for Paul’s using homosexuality as his illustration of the immediate consequence of idolatry is that its public manifestations were typically associated with pagan temples. If it was the places where idols were publicly worshipped that homosexuality was publicly practiced, drawing a connection would have made obvious contact with the common sensibility of the time. Since the literal form of idolatry common in Paul’s day is no longer the way idolatry functions in our society, and since in our society there is little association of homosexual practice with religious festivals, this reason for Paul’s selection is now chiefly of historical interest.
Paul’s treatment of homosexual acts in this passage has often been used to argue that these acts are sinful and should be forbidden and punished, or at least that they cannot be condoned by the church. It is important to see that this is not Paul’s point. His point is that they vividly illustrate the corruption of a society based on idolatry. Everyone in the society participates in its corruption. Not every individual, of course acts homosexually. But Paul’s most extended criticism is of those who, thinking they are free of vice, stand in judgment on others as individuals. They thereby place themselves under God’s judgment. “Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, do the very same thing.” (Romans 2:1) Would that those who condemn homosexuals so self-righteously read on past Romans 1:27 to this verse and those that follow! If they did, the church would be a very different place.
If Paul is not depicting homosexual acts as sins that lead properly to the condemnation of the sinner but as the key illustration of the results of idolatry, what conclusions can be drawn directly by the reader as to Paul’s intention for those who agree with him? The answer, I think, is clear. We should work to end the idolatry that corrupts society. Those who lift up homosexual acts as that which is to be condemned and eradicated are attacking what Paul regards as the symptoms, not the cause. They are themselves participating in the consequences of idolatry while focusing judgment on others who are doing so. We need, instead, collectively to repent of our idolatry.
That Paul is not proposing in these verses a statement of how we should and should not act is made very clear in the letter as a whole. This letter has as its most central issue the role of law. Paul is thinking especially of Jewish law, but he makes clear that his theological views apply to any formulation of right and wrong behavior. He goes to great lengths to show that the effort to overcome the consequences of idolatry by obedience to law is not successful. Although the law is “holy, just, and good,” (Romans 7:11) as long as it functions as law, that is as rules to be obeyed, its actual effects on us are not the intended ones.
The most vivid illustration of this fundamental Pauline insight is his famous discussion of “You shall not covet.” Note that he takes his example directly from the Ten Commandments, which so many Christians have taken as exempt from the general Christian transcendence of the Jewish law. He writes: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” (Romans 7:7-10)
Paul emphatically did not use homosexuality to illustrate the consequences of idolatry in order to have his followers seek to solve the problem by formulating moral laws or commandments against it. That response contradicts the basic purpose of the letter to the Romans and indeed of all of Paul’s labors. For Paul we escape the power of sin, not by making laws against it but by participating in the faithfulness, the death, and, eventually, the resurrection of Jesus. Through this participation we enter the life of the Spirit. In that life, sin is progressively overcome by love. Love guides all decisions. It does not require a list of do’s and don’ts for this purpose. In fact any such list would reintroduce the problems of law to which Paul called attention so forcefully.
Obviously, this is a very limited account of the rich theology of Paul’s great letter to the Romans. For my present purpose, just one point is crucial. The legalistic use of this passage about homosexuality is sharply contradictory to Paul’s intention. The same is true of treating his description of the wider corruption of society in Romans 1:28-32 as the basis for legalism. Turning his list of vices into a list of prohibitions would be completely counter to what Paul is calling for in this letter.
4. Was Paul Right?
In the previous section I expressed by appreciation and admiration for Paul’s theological discussion of how idolatry distorts the whole human condition. I understand my own analysis of what is wrong with the word to be in fundamental agreement with Paul. I regard Paul as the profoundest thinker who has ever lived with respect to the role of law. I also see my understanding of the Christian response as closely following Paul’s. When I ask the question, Was Paul Right?, I want to say an emphatic Yes. I am a Pauline Christian.
Nevertheless, to affirm Paul and identify with him in these ways does not mean to agree with him at every point. Paul was a human being and therefore a child of his time. He was brilliantly original and thereby broke with his contemporaries in fundamental ways, pioneering a new vision. So radical is that vision that the church still largely refuses it.
Nevertheless, apart from that vision, we Gentiles would not now be Christians at all. Still, there were many features of his culture that Paul just took for granted. He did not spend his time preaching what everybody already believed, but he used these common agreements in the formulation of arguments on other topics.
How else could any writer function? One cannot challenge everything at once. One builds from where people are to the next stage. One thinks that way oneself. But centuries later, to say that some of what Paul took for granted from his cultural context needs to be reexamined, is in no sense to denigrate his authority. Paul was remarkable in his day in his acceptance of women as leaders in his churches and in respect for slaves as human beings. Nevertheless, viewed from our present vantage point, Paul’s views on gender and slavery need to be updated. Nothing in his basic theology is thereby affected. On the contrary, his basic theology calls on his followers to be constantly open to working out the implications of participating in the faithfulness of Jesus and living and thinking in the love that is engendered in us by the Spirit.
The question before us now is whether the connection that Paul drew between idolatry and homosexuality is accurate. Now that the visible connection of practices at pagan temples is not before us, we can ask the question more objectively. Do the idolatries that are now prevalent, (I noted the treatment of the nation, or of wealth, or of sexual enjoyment as supremely important) lead to homosexuality? In the case of the first two, the answer seems clearly negative.
In the case of the third, it may be partly positive and may make connection with Paul’s view. A person who does not subordinate sexual pleasure and exploration to any higher good, may well be inclined to experiment with multiple forms of sexuality. For example, a man who is primarily oriented to women, may experiment with children of both sexes and with adult men as well. This fits Paul’s language about giving up “natural intercourse with women.” For most men this is indeed the natural form of intercourse. To give this up simply to broaden one’s sexual experience may well express the idolatry of sexual experience. In this way I can agree that some homosexual actions are an expression of a particular idolatry.
Today, however, the idolatry of wealth is far more serious, nationally and globally, than the idolatry of sex. Our national life is organized in the pursuit of wealth. Our international policies are directed toward controlling and exploiting the wealth of the whole world. Our educational system is ordered to serve this pursuit of wealth both collectively and by the individual students. Indeed, our whole society instead of ordering economic matters for the sake of overall human and social well being has subordinated itself to the market as the instrument of producing wealth. If today we are to illustrate how idolatry distorts the whole of society, this is a far more illuminating illustration than one dealing with sexuality. I dare to believe that Paul would agree with me.
But our specific question today is whether homosexual actions in general and as such are expressions of idolatry. My judgment is that they are not. For those who are strongly oriented homosexually, physical expression of their desires is just as natural as the physical expression of heterosexual desires is for others. It is heterosexual acts that are for these people unnatural. Physical expressions of love of a member of one’s own gender need not conflict with putting God first in one’s life.
Of course, “natural” is used in more that one sense. Those who condemn homosexual acts may still recognize that for some people they are very much in accord with their own personal nature. The argument they derive from the Bible is that they are against the primordial order of things established by God in creation. They are, instead, the result of the subsequent distortion of this order. That they are against nature means that they are against the original created order.
I noted that a similar argument can be made from evolutionary biology. I do not doubt that gender distinction came into being for purposes of reproduction. For many centuries, indeed, until quite recently, Christians taught that because the purpose of sexual intercourse was reproduction, it should be limited to that one function. The pleasure associated with it should be minimized. And any acts directed to the pleasure that did not directly contribute to reproduction were condemned.
Protestants gradually broadened the legitimate role of sexual intercourse. The mutual intimacy of spouses came to be prized in its own right. Pleasure was not bad in itself. In other words, a gift of God that had one primary purpose in its origins can bring other blessings with it. In a day when the problem is too many children rather than too few, the wider gifts tend to become more important and the initially primary one less so. In any case, re-reading our Bibles, we find that God created Eve not for the sake of reproduction but for the sake of companionship. That sexual intercourse is part of this companionship seems to be taken for granted. Why this was so belittled in church teaching for so long is hard to understand.
Once we have recognized that the desirable function of sex is by no means limited to procreation, the argument that all homosexual intercourse is “unnatural” seems severely weakened. If it is not good that the man should be alone, then one who craves intimacy with another person of one’s own gender should not be forced to live alone either. Sexual activity can play a positive and natural role in homosexual companionship as in heterosexual companionship.
If the only form of homosexual activity of which Paul was aware was promiscuous and lustful, we can agree that what he observed expressed idolatry. We can also agree that much sexuality today expresses idolatry. We may even agree that in a society that discourages faithful bonding among homosexuals, a higher percentage of homosexual activity than of heterosexual activity expresses idolatry. But I for one do not agree that the homosexual couples I know, who, despite all social pressures, have remained faithful to one another through thick and thin are behaving unnaturally or expressing idolatry. On the contrary, they are expressing just that responsible sexuality that is truly non-idolatrous. They do not illustrate Paul’s general point in any way. On the contrary, against great odds they provide just that model of Christian sexuality that is relevant to millions of others. That most of our churches reject them for their courage and steadfast faith is no credit to our churches. The fact that many sincere Christians believe that they are called to do this by the teaching of Paul shows a profound misunderstanding of Paul’s deepest concerns and most profound teaching.