On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (11): Reading Romans 1

‘The Body’s Grace’ itself contains no discussion of the biblical passages that explicitly address same-sex relationships, but we can go some way to plugging that gap by turning to another piece by Williams: ‘Knowing myself in Christ’ in The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church, ed. Timothy Bradshaw (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 12-19 – one of a set of responses to ‘The St Andrew’s Day Statement’ – which is available as an rtf document here.

The portion of the paper that concerns us begins when Williams poses the question,

Is [homosexual desire] always and necessarily a desire comparable to the desire for many sexual partners or for sexual gratification at someone else’s expense – comparable, more broadly, to the desire for revenge or the desire to avoid speaking an unwelcome or disadvantageous truth? (14)

He suggests that the St Andrew’s statement answers this question in the affirmative, and that it does so in large part on the basis of Romans 1 – specifically Romans 1:26-27.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

He then draws attention to the fact that same-sex relationships or practices are described here as involving

the blind abandonment of what is natural and at some level known to be so, and the deliberate turning in rapacity to others. (16)

I take it that the first part of this statement connects Romans 1:26-27 to verses 19-25 (‘For what can be known about God is plain to them … [but] … they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’), and that the second part of the statement relates verses 26 and 27 to what comes after in 29 to 31 (‘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 towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’)

Williams then claims that it is ‘quite possible’ to ask whether the desires, relationships and activities condemned by Romans 1:26-27 include everything that we now know as homosexuality.

Is it not a fair question to ask whether conscious rebellion and indiscriminate rapacity could be presented as a plausible account of the essence of ‘homosexual behaviour’, let alone homosexual desire as it may be observed around us now? (16)

Williams asks what happens if, as we ask this question, we are faced with phenomena that seem to match one part of this description (in that they involve same-sex desire and sexual activity) but do not match the rest. He imagines us confronted with a homosexual person who says

I want to live in obedience to God; I truly, prayerfully and conscientiously do not recognise Romans 1 as describing what I am or what I want. I am not rejecting something I know in the depths of my being. I struggle against the many inducements to live in promiscuous rapacity – not without cost.

It is vital to note that he is not asking us to imagine someone who does not like the harsh truth that the passage is proclaiming, or who regards it as unfair. This is not about disagreeing with the passage; it is about claiming that there are forms of homosexuality that are simply not imagined by this passage – forms which its descriptions do not capture, and which its condemnations therefore do not reach.

He then imagines the person going on to say

I am not asking just for fulfilment. I want to know how my human and historical being, enacting itself through the negotiation of all sorts of varied desires and projects, may become transparent to Jesus, a sign of the kingdom. I do not seek to avoid cost. But for the married, that cost is worked out in the daily discipline of a shared life, which, by the mutual commitment it embodies, becomes a means of grace and strength for the bearing of the cost.

Williams asks,

How does the homosexually inclined person show Christ to the world? That must be the fundamental question.

If the homosexuality of Romans 1:26-27 is condemned because, ultimately, it cannot but be a betrayal of the God of Jesus Christ – a setting up of idols in the place of that God – then Williams’ claim is not simply the negative one that there are forms of homosexual relationship not captured by that critique, but the positive one that there are forms of homosexual relationship capable of witnessing to that same God. We are back to the claim implied by ‘The Body’s Grace’, which I discussed two posts ago: Williams can see nothing that would automatically make a same-sex sexual relationship less capable than a heterosexual one of proclaiming the gospel.

*     *     *

Now, this is as it stands no more than the sketch of an argument, but I think it is possible to see how it might be filled in. So I offer you here a more detailed Williams-ish reading of the Romans passage. I am making this up; I have not cribbed it from anywhere in Williams’ writings – nevertheless, it is my attempt to imagine a more detailed account consistent with Williams’ arguments.

In the first place, it is clear that Romans 1:26-27 does not simply describe homosexuality as one more vice in a list of vices. It is presented as a vice which, along with idolatry, somehow cuts to the heart of what sin is like. Verses 19-25 describe the loss of a right ordering of life – a life centred upon true worship. Romans 1:26-27 suggest that this right ordering is also, perhaps fundamentally, a right ordering of desire, an ordering centred upon God, but within which there is a place for proper (‘natural’) sexual relationships. Sexual relationships matter in this ordering, and receive such prominent billing in the story of its destruction, because they are one of the key places where the ordering of our desires is writ large.

Sin fundamentally involves the breakdown of this proper ordering, and so although it will have many symptoms, the disordering of specifically sexual desire will loom large amongst those symptoms – it will, in some sense, be (along with explicit idolatry) the characteristic sin.

But – and this is crucial – the passage also goes on to describe in more general terms the character of disordered life: it is malice, covetousness, envy, it is haughty, boastful, proud. Recalling another famous Pauline passage, one might say that disordered life is fundamentally life devoid of that Christlike love which is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It only makes sense for Paul to put a description of homosexual desire in the centre of this passage if, for him, homosexual desire unlike heterosexual desire automatically means a form of sexual desire in which the individual’s gratification has become the central, the all-consuming element – if, for him, homosexual desire automatically means a form of sexual desire which by its very nature is incapable of the kind of loving mutuality that we have been discussing all along. If that is not what Paul is assuming, his argument makes no sense. (Of course, it might not be too difficult to see how the most visible forms of homosexual relationship in Paul’s context may well in his eyes have confirmed that supposition).

To say that, nevertheless, we have learnt that there are other forms of homosexuality – that there are forms unimagined by Paul which can, as easily as heterosexuality, answer the calls to loving mutuality, to committed faithfulness, and to faith that I have discussed earlier – is not to deny the fundamental thrust of the passage. It does not deny that sin is fundamentally characterised by rebellion against God and by rapacity, that sexual relationships are one place in which that disorder is particularly clearly displayed, and that it is understandable that Paul in his context should single out the forms of homosexual relationships he knew of as particularly clear and dramatic examples of that. It can affirm all that, and yet say ‘Nevertheless…’

*     *     *

There is one fly in this ointment, however, and Williams acknowledges it towards the end of his paper as a point on which further discussion is needed (19). This argument has not yet touched upon one aspect of the passage which might seem to undercut (or at least to complicate) the reading I have just given. The disorder of sexual desire described in Romans 1 is presented as an abandonment of natural desire – and the assumption is clearly that heterosexual desire is natural in a way that homosexual desire is not and cannot be. (We’re clearly not a million miles away from the ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve‘ argument…)

My instinct, at this point, is simply to say that, yes, the discovery that there are forms of homosexual relationship that are not rapacious in the way Paul assumes is also the discovery that there are forms of homosexual relationship that are just as natural as heterosexuality can be. And that this recognition, strange though it may sound, is a profoundly important one: it helps us realise that ‘natural’ does not for Christians mean anything different than ‘capable of proclaiming Christ; capable of displaying Christlike love’. It helps us take the ‘natural’/’unnatural’ distinction captive to Christ, and recognise that it is precisely the same as the distinction between the sense in which the world to which the incarnate Word came was his own, and the sense in which it did not recognise him. And, yes, I don’t deny for a moment that this goes beyond what is envisaged in this particular passage – but I would argue that to take the passage in this direction is profoundly in line with the gospel as a whole.

I know that this will sound to some like I’m not taking the passage seriously. But I think most of those who reject this position will actually play just as loose with its words. That is, I suspect that most of those who say that Romans 1 teaches us that homosexual sexual relationships are wrong because they violate the natural male-female ordering of creation will go on to downplay the equally clear implication of the passage that such homosexual relationships are inherently and obviously incapable of anything other than rapacity, that they are inherently and obviously incapable of loving mutuality, that they are inherently and obviously incapable of sustaining anything other than gratification. And yet such downplaying is going to be unavoidable if, following the insistence of Lambeth 98’s resolution 1.10, we ‘listen to the experience of homosexual persons’ as Williams has suggested we should. In the light of that listening, I don’t think there’s any way forward with this passage that doesn’t involve going beyond it in some way.

*     *     *

You still disagree. I can tell.

In the remaining sections of this series, I’m going to ask where that disagreement leaves us.

13 Thoughts on “On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (11): Reading Romans 1

  1. Hi again – no I don’t disagree. I don’t actually think either you or Rowan go far enough. I agree that our sexuality is far more central than not. Also I agree that ‘natural’ is a weak argument against same sex relations. I think you have done very well in this whole series of essays. I have shred them all on one of my blogs. You achieve the highest score when you write in the person of your interlocutor:

    >>I want to live in obedience to God; I truly, prayerfully and conscientiously do not recognise Romans 1 as describing what I am or what I want. I am not rejecting something I know in the depths of my being.

  2. shred should read shared!

  3. Thank you, for this analysis of Rm 1,19-27. It has been illuminating.

  4. Interesting. But you’re right, I do still disagree.

    My basic argument in disagreement would be that Paul does not claim in Romans 1 that all homosexuals are rapacious. Rather, he is giving various examples of what happens when people reject the knowledge of God (1:21): idolatry (1:22-23,25); homosexual practice (1:24,26-27); and a whole list of other specific sins (1:29-30). He certainly doesn’t imply that any one person does all of these things, although the last part (1:31-32) is presumably to be understood as a summary applicable to all. So, the fact that a particular practising homosexual isn’t for example “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” by no means gets them off the hook. The principle of James 2:10-11 applies to lists like this just as much as to the law of Moses.

    In fact your argument could be turned round in astonishing ways. If homosexual practice is not covered by this passage because not every homosexual is “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice”, by the same argument the passage should not condemn murder committed by heterosexuals! I’m sure neither you nor Rowan would want to argue that, so perhaps you need to reconsider your use of the mirror to that argument.

  5. Sorry, perhaps I was not clear. I am, of course, not saying that only people who do all these things should be condemned, nor am I saying that Paul thinks that any one person will do all of these things. That would indeed allow some astonishing conclusions – but I don’t think my actual argument leaves me open to that charge.

    In contrast to you, however, I do not think it will do to say that this passage simply gives a list of ‘various examples’ of sin. The analysis of sin begins with idolatry: that is the deepest root of sin (or, rather, it is the flip side of the deepest root of sin which is the rejection of the true God); it is not just one more sin in a list of sins. And this exposition of the nature of sin continues with the vice list of verses 29-31, which lists some of the characteristic forms that sin takes (and which I read as, either consciously or unconsciously, a pretty good mirror image of what Paul elsewhere says about love). These are the kinds of fruit that grow from that diseased root.

    The verses on homosexuality stand in the middle of all this, and seem to play some kind of role as a paradigmatic sin. It is not, of course, presented as a sin that every sinner commits, but it does seem to be a sin in which the character of sin – the basic flavour of the fruit that grows from idolatry’s root (insolence, envy, strife and so on) is somehow particular clear.

    So, I don’t see how to do justice to this passage without seeing a strong connection between the clear rejection of love in the vice list in verses 29-31 – the clear delivery of the self to a life in which selfish desire dominates, and others are turned into grist for the self’s mill – and the description in the previous verses of homosexuality. That connection is echoed in the description of homosexuality as involving being ‘consumed by passion’ – it is, it seems, fundamentally lustful.

    So I am not claiming that Paul thinks that everyone who is homosexual is also a murderer, but rather that just as those two sins have the same deep root (idolatry) so they have the same basic character (desire twisted in on itself) – and, indeed, that this shared character is particularly clearly evident in homosexuality.

    Now, this is one construal of the passage. It places a good deal of emphasis on the vice list of the end, and uses that (read in the context of other relevant biblical passages) as a key to unlock the passage as a whole. Others will read differently, taking (say) the ‘natural/unnatural’ divide as the key that unlocks the whole, or playing up the ‘idolatry’ key while playing down the ‘rejection of love’ idea; others will see the passage as not having the kind of consistency that requires or accepts a ‘key’. However, whilst I find my construal convincing as a reading of this specific text, and whilst I can’t see how to accept one of the other construals I have mentioned without losing something real that I think my construal has enabled me to see, I nevertheless don’t actually think that the debate between those differing construals can finally be settled simply by attention to this text. The debate between these differing construals is bound to end up being a debate between much broader patterns of understanding and expectation – a debate between differing construals of the Christian story, of the nature of the Bible, of the task of biblical interpretation, and so on. I certainly hope to get people to the point where they can see that my reading is possible; I don’t expect to get to the point of convincing others that it is really plausible – not without at the same time convincing those others of the plausibility of a broader pattern of theological thinking.

  6. Thank you for the clarification. Well, I will concede that your construal is possible. I agree in rejecting the idea that “Paul thinks that everyone who is homosexual is also a murderer”. But I would say that Paul thinks that everyone who is homosexual is also selfish and describable in general terms in 1:29-31 – and I say that because he thinks that is true of everyone, at least apart from the grace of Christ. So I don’t think anyone can say “It’s OK for me to be a practising homosexual because I am otherwise a good loving person”, because no one can say the last part, we are all sinners. On this basis I would not suggest that homosexual acts are worse sins than ones like envy, strife and gossip – but I would claim that Paul expects us to avoid all of them.

  7. My claim is not simply that Paul says that everyone who is homosexual is also selfish, but that – if I read this text right – he portrays homosexuality (both the desire and the practice) as inherently an instance of such selfishness. So the response imagined by Rowan Williams is not a homosexual person saying, ‘I am otherwise a good person’ but ‘Actually, I do not find that my homosexuality is an aspect of my life that is inherently and only selfish; in fact, it is one of the areas of my life where I can, by God’s grace, hear and respond to God’s call out of selfishness and into Christlike love.’

  8. Mike – I am moved by the two-edged sword you take in hand when you write. Such precision.

    I think we as church have not taught well the use of the cross. But perhaps the difficulty of its use is inherent for each generation. In my walking with Christ – through this seat of God’s extreme mercy – at the place where I or anyone else may have boldness to meet with God, I have found something other than the rejection that most people read into Romans 1. I think people read into Romans what is simply not there rhetorically. What we think Paul thought or thinks is not necessarily a living and active two-edged sword. What is the use of the sacrifice of Christ for us? It is to know him and to learn from him by the Spirit through conforming ourselves to his baptism. If a homosexual says to me – I have done this – I am doing this – then I say it is not for me to judge what God is doing in them by his work of love for us all. I must accept the claim or else, to note Romans and James both agreeing on this, I am setting myself up as lawgiver and judge.

  9. I appreciate your thoughtful comments on this passage. But in the end, I’m unconvinced by your assessment (reached on other than Scriptural grounds) that homosexuality can be “just as natural” as heterosexuality. I disagree with this conclusion not so much because it runs counter to Paul’s understanding of homosexuality in Romans 1, but because it runs counter to a consistent Biblical, creational and new-creational ethic which is affirmed and reaffirmed under both the old and new covenants. “God made them male and female,” Jesus quoted, and reaffirmed. The half-dozen or so biblical condemnations of homosexuality always take place within the context of a vision of creational wholeness that includes the alterities of male and female finding fulfillment precisely in their bodily, psychic and spiritual differences. Homosexuality, in its inability or refusal to be captivated by someone of the same species who is nevertheless as different from you as possible, necessarily falls short of this biblical vision of loving the other.

    Now, I certainly agree that there can be better and worse forms of homosexuality. If a Christian homosexual tragically finds himself unable to live a life of chastity, there are worse things than to live a life of devoted commitment to one person. That’s still missing the mark of the complete Biblical vision, but it’s at least capturing part of it, and that’s better than nothing. But I think we’re disagreeing with far more than a half-dozen isolated passages if we try to say that such a relationship is “just as natural” as a heterosexual one.

  10. Thanks for that, Ken. The difference between your and my position is (as you say) not really a matter of the exegesis of this particular passage. Rather, it is a difference in how this passage is read against a background of a broader theological vision.

    The discussion of such broader visions is a much more difficult matter than the discussion of individual passages, and it’s hard to know where to begin when faced with a vision with which one disagrees.

    So I’m well aware of how inadequate and question-begging it must seem when I simply say that I disagree profoundly and completely with what you present as a ‘consistent Biblical creational and new-creational ethic’ and disagree that it ‘is affirmed and reaffirmed under both the old and new covenants’. It is – no more and no less than the broader theological vision that I have been presenting – a modern theological construct that provides one inherently questionable way of grasping the structure of the Christian story.

    Let me simply focus on one point. I have to admit to a tragic failure of my own. I’m afraid I couldn’t live a life of chastity, and so I married someone who, although she was a woman, was a similar age, the same ethnic group, the same nationality, the same faith, very similar interests, a very similar educational background, and so on. There were, in fact, just so many ways in which she was not as different from me as possible, so I guess I simply failed to live up to a biblical vision of loving the other.

    I don’t mean to be flippant. I’m simply unconvinced that the place you give to the male-female difference rests upon a deeper point about otherness – just as I am unconvinced that this male-female difference has to play the basic structural role that you give it in the Christian story.

  11. Hmmm. I must remember that feeble attempts at humour don’t necessarily work so well in blog comments. My comment now reads to me like a put down; sorry if it read that way to you too, Ken. You raise serious points which deserve a serious response – a more serious one than I’m going to be able to give them here.

  12. I agree that my construct about “otherness” is just that — a construct that I’m reading into the text, not drawing out of it. I think I’m on to something there, though the way I phrased it above is certainly open to your critique :-). (And no, I didn’t take it as a put-down, in the slightest — you’ve got a good point there.)

    But I do think that the whole “male-female” dynamic (for whatever reason) is very much insisted upon in both testaments. Paul clearly modifies the OT vision somewhat when he says that chastity is preferable to marriage, and Jesus perhaps points in the same direction with (a) his own personal example, and (b) his obscure reference to “those who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven”. But I think that’s as far as the NT modification goes. We can come up with different explanations as to why, and mine is just one attempt to do so, but I think the insistence is there regardless of how we explain it.

    I do agree that this is fundamentally a difference of theological vision. We all interpret Scripture through the lens of our culture, and I’ll even grant that culture can sometimes be a helpful corrective to one-sided readings of Scripture (e.g., slavery, the role of women, etc.). My concern with the direction that much of the modern Church is taking with homosexuality is that all the Scriptural passages which touch remotely on this topic point in a very different direction than, say, where the PC-USA (my own denomination) is heading lately. As a non-fundamentalist who nevertheless wants to insist on a real authority resident within Scripture, that’s worrisome to me.

  13. Matt on July 2, 2009 at 9:05 am said:

    I wonder if a little more historical awareness might fill out some of these questions? For instance, a little browsing of the Stoic understanding of nature or of the standard Jewish ethic of Paul’s day has the potential to help us to appreciate in more depth that which Paul takes for granted and skips over. It’s not that these things are determinative for Paul’s theology in and of themselves, but as I say, they can help to fill out that which for Paul apparently did not need explication. One small consequence of doing this, I expect, is that we’ll find that ‘natural’ is not a category that can be defined on the basis of an individual’s experience (or even that of social/sexual sub-group). It, in effect, ends up being a revealed category – the world interpreted through Scripture.

    One other small thing is that the argument that Paul’s ideas do not refer to ‘permanent, faithful, stable’ relationships because he envisages a conscious turning to rapacious indulgence may risk setting up a straw man.

    I’m not sure that Paul envisages a conscious act of idolatry by every ‘pagan’. Similarly, I’m not sure that there is a conscious ‘exchange’ (v.25) behind every homosexual act. Paul’s argument seems to operate on something more of a primal mythico-genetic level (I just made that up, someone help me with a better term!). In other words, every such act in part is the result of the ‘giving up’ of pagans to the ‘passions’ that they have. (Paul does not seem to speculate why and when these passions were originated.)

    If this is right, then Paul’s claims involve a command to bring our desires under a universal, revealed order. If we appeal to the compassionate, mutual nature of gay relationships, this doesn’t really scratch the surface of what Paul is saying.

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