I just got an email from Harold, one of my PFLAG friends. He asked the following question.
“How do you reconcile Paul’s words and yet support LGBTs?”
There are several good ways of approaching this question. One way looks at Paul’s specific words, what they mean and don’t mean, and then discover that Paul is not as anti-homosexual as fundamentalists make him out to be. Another way is to look at Paul as a man who was working out his theology, literally, as he went along. Another way is to see how Paul treated other issues of some disagreement, that have been puzzling or unclear to us. Finally, we can look at some of Paul’s own attitudes and interactions, and adopt some of them as our own.
One way looks at Paul’s specific words in context, what they mean and don’t mean, and then discover that Paul is not as anti-homosexual as fundamentalists make him out to be.
This is where most Bible discussions focus. The problem with this approach is that it never settles anything, and is often unpersuasive for any of the parties to a debate. This is partly due to the fact that most of the personal factors are not based on the Bible, but on what those around you believe. We all want to belong, and we will adjust our attitudes and beliefs to reflect those of the people whose approval and acceptance we need and want.
If you want to read my main treatment of Romans 1, go to my posts titled Clobber Passage: Romans 1:18-27, as well as Clobber Passage: Romans 1:26-27. My approach to I Corinthians 6:9 is in the post, Clobber Passage:I Corinthians 6:9–All Blade and No Handle. In these posts, my main approach is the same as Paul’s, who everywhere urges Christians to forgive, and to stop judging people, especially in Romans 2:1-4ff. Now you know that this in itself is unpersuasive for anti-gay Christians, who say, “I’m not judging, this is just what the Bible says.” So we have a game of he-said she-said. It’s like playing tic-tac-toe: no one ever “wins”.
Many progressive Christians try to conclusively “prove” that Paul was not against homosexuality. I don’t think we can prove that Paul was not against homosexuality. Paul was, after all, not real keen on sex of any kind, although he does give grudging acceptance of marital sex in I Corinthians 7:1-3. But Paul nowhere strikes up the band to “celebrate sexual intimacy”.
But for some gay and lesbian Christians, the iron-clad “debunking” of Paul’s remarks is important, even necessary, for their sense of being loved and accepted by God, and I don’t argue with them. God’s word to me in this regard comes from Jesus, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” In this situation, “sin” is losing your awareness of God’s love and acceptance, falling into despair, and falling away from God.
On the other hand, I know that Jesus loved and accepted gays and lesbians, based on the Centurion’s pais, and the gay and lesbian couples in Luke 17:34-35. But the argument then moves to he-said she-said, bouncing the ball between Jesus and Paul.
I am convinced that the so-called Biblical case against homosexuals is very weak. Ultimately, however, our conflicting scriptural interpretations are not going to end. Such discussions can be good, but there are other factors entering in. “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” The difference between me and my opponents? I don’t call them names or get nasty.
Another way is to look at Paul as a man who was carefully working out his theology, literally, as he matured and aged as a Christian leader.
Paul was deeply spiritual and deeply human, a person of great emotional and intellectual depth. His Letter to the Romans is controversial because he was working out the problem of the Christian’s relationship to the Law. I can’t go into it here, but he was struggling to how it could no longer dictate our actions, yet somehow remained relevant to us. That task resulted in some really convoluted reasoning!
For example, his Letter to the Galatians is a vitriolic attack on the Law. There were some believers who insisted that others in the Galatian church remain under the Law, and Paul says this: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12,) Strong language. But later, after he has had a chance to process the role of the Law in the Christian life, he is more temperate in how he expresses his antagonism toward the Law. Thus, we can see change and development in Paul’s theology.
Another way is to see how Paul treated other issues of some disagreement, that have been puzzling or unclear to us.
Major example: women in the church. In I Timothy 2:12 and I Corinthians 14:13 Paul says women are to keep silent. But in Galatians 3:28 he says, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Most moderate and progressive pastors and theologians would agree that the overarching theological concept (no-distinction, egalitarian unity) trumps the casuistry of individual applications.
Finally, we can look at some of Paul’s own attitudes and interactions, conflicting evidence, and determine what they mean for us.
In a conflict with his critics, Paul wrote, “As for me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself,” (I Corinthians 4:3) We don’t have to cower in fear in the face of our critics and detractors. If I know what is right, it doesn’t matter how many criticisms someone throws my way or how much name-calling they do.
Paul wrote, “You have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Daddy.” (Romans 8:15) Similarly he wrote, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline,” (I Timothy 1:7). Fear not!
Finally, Paul himself urges us to evaluate teachings for ourselves. Regarding prophecies and teachings, Paul said to “Test everything, hold onto what is good,”(I Thessalonians 5:21). We don’t take anyone’s word as pure truth, even Paul’s. We are to “test everything.” The audience in Berea are called noble, because when Paul finished teaching each day, they studied the scripture to see if his teaching was confirmed. (Acts 17:10-11).
Did you know that Paul had a “sharp disagreement” with another missionary? He had serious falling out with Barnabas over whether or not to keep Mark on the missionary team. Paul rejected Mark, but Barnabas said, “No way, he’s staying.” And Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways. Later on, Paul learned to accept Mark.
Paul’s rejection of women teaching and leading congregations is well-known. Yet here again, we find Paul expressing gratitude for a female missionary named Priscilla. Indeed, she and her husband had a congregation that met in their home. “Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus.” (Romans 16:3)
“The churches here in the province of Asia send greetings in the Lord, as do Aquila and Priscilla and all the others who gather in their home for church meetings.” (I Corinthians 16:19)
“Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.” (Romans 16:3-5)
When Luke was with Paul and their team of missionaries, Luke says that they “entered the house of Philip the evangelist . . . . And he had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” Yet there is not a hint of criticism here, no “women must keep silent in the church.”
So, Paul rejected Mark as a missionary colleague, but later changed his mind. He said that he didn’t allow women to speak in the church or lead men, yet Priscilla led a ministry in her home, and Philip the evangelist had four daughters who prophesied. Rejecting Mark, rejecting women, rejecting (it seems to me) homosexuals. Like all real historical documents, these contain a complex picture, not a simplistic story, with simple rules, for a simplistic audience.
Paul said to the believers in Corinth, “And you should imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” Paul is a worthy example, insofar as his example is like Christ’s. When I look at Jesus’ life and ministry, I don’t see him singling out specific groups for correction, except for the scribes and Pharisees. He didn’t harp on tax collectors, or Jewish traitors, or sex workers. And I see from Jesus’ example with the Roman centurion and his pais, and the gay and lesbian couples in Luke 17, that Jesus was quite open to gays and lesbians.
I am inspired by Paul’s example, and his example is worthy to emulate, insofar as he follows Christ. His apparent feelings about what we would call male homosexuality is not consistent with Jesus’s attitude. Therefore, I don’t need to follow Paul there.
I know this raises a host of theological problems regarding the role of scripture, the authority of the Bible, etc. All I have done here is taken that very authority and shown you how I apply it to myself. If others disagree, what does that matter to me? I don’t interfere with them in their churches, they are not accountable to me. Whether they extend that respect to me is their concern. I don’t answer to them. I answer to God. The Spirit dwells in me, too.