Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Last time, we talked about the Greco-Roman concept of self-mastery, and Paul’s use of it in Romans 1. His seemingly straightforward condemnation of same-sex behavior is based not in a sense of universal standards of morality but in a heavily culture-dependent notion of masculinity.

Let’s dive into that culture a little more.

Self-mastery was such a dominant concept in the Roman world because it was not only associated with true manliness, but because it was linked to the success of the empire itself.

Roman leader Octavian’s greatest victory was the defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. It marked the ultimate transition of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, gave Octavian nearly unlimited power, and ultimately led the Senate to give him the title Caesar Augustus, by which he was known at the time of Christ’s birth.

So what story did Augustus tell about his victory over the Egyptian forces commanded by Antony and Cleopatra?

According to Plutarch, “when Caesar had prepared sufficiently, a declaration of war was voted against Cleopatra, and to take away from Antony the authority to rule which he had given up to a woman. And Caesar added that Antony was drugged and not master of himself, and that Romans would be at war with Mardion the eunuch … and Iras, the hair stylist woman of Cleopatra.” Dio wrote that Augustus’ goal was “to conquer and rule all humankind, and to allow no woman to make herself equal to a man.”

As Stanley K. Stowers writes in A Rereading of Romans, this had the effect of equating femaleness with weakness and foreignness. Augustus used Antony’s worship of the god Dionysus to portray him as “lost in a piety of drunken foreign and eastern debauchery,” while playing up his own worship of Apollo, “who could be presented as god of reason and traditional morality.”

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‘Struggling to Find Our Way’ on Abortion

I’ve discussed before that I am finding even that most polarizing of subjects, abortion, to be less and less clear cut.

As a further example, I offer Emily Rapp’s poignant and powerful piece for Slate this week – in which she argues that had she known of her son’s genetic disorder, she would have aborted him:

If I had known Ronan had Tay-Sachs (I met with two genetic counselors and had every standard prenatal test available to me, including the one for Tay-Sachs, which did not detect my rare mutation, and therefore I waived the test at my CVS procedure), I would have found out what the disease meant for my then unborn child; I would have talked to parents who are raising (and burying) children with this disease, and then I would have had an abortion. Without question and without regret, although this would have been a different kind of loss to mourn and would by no means have been a cavalier or uncomplicated, heartless decision. I’m so grateful that Ronan is my child. I also wish he’d never been born; no person should suffer in this way—daily seizures, blindness, lack of movement, inability to swallow, a devastated brain—with no hope for a cure. Both of these statements are categorically true; neither one is mutually exclusive.

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Class, Week 6: What Is Wrong With 2 Corinthians?

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Corinth

I don’t have much time for blogging this morning, so you get a copy-and-paste job. Each week, our assignment for class is to read the assigned book(s) of the New Testament and write 200 words on the authorship, setting, content and structure. The trick is we’re supposed to read these books as if we’ve never heard anything about them before – which is tough.

We’re moving in roughly chronological order – that is, the order in which the New Testament was written, except to cover the Gospels first. Mark is believed to be the first gospel written, but it still came after most, if not all, of Paul’s letters. Nevertheless, we started with Mark, then Matthew, then Luke-Acts, then we moved to the letters – 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and now 1 and 2 Corinthians.

Below is what I wrote for the two books; note the inconsistency between the two I point out:

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Defending Islam … and Christianity

If you haven’t read Skye Jethani’s excellent post – “Why I Defend Muslims” – by now, you certainly should. It’s made the rounds of the blogosphere, and it’s an excellent call for balance that I hope is convicting for many Christians.

It certainly was for me – not because I have a hard time defending Muslims, but because I have a hard time defending Christians.

Jethani’s post starts as a defense of Islam:

Here’s the truth. First, I believe Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, including our Muslim neighbors, and we cannot love them if we are gripped by fear. The distortions and hysteria regarding Islam since 9/11 is unfair to our Muslim neighbors and preventing Christians from loving them as we are called. I simply want to help the church move past fear to a posture of faith where love becomes possible.

Second, I believe the message of Christ can stand on its own merit without having to misrepresent other religions or showcase the worst elements of other faith communities or their pasts. Heaven knows Christianity has some skeletons in its history closet, and if we want to have a showdown between the worst expressions of Islam and the worst of Christianity, count me out. I’m not interested in defending Christendom/European imperialism. I’m interested in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At this point, all the people on the left side of the room stand up and cheer. Continue reading

Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2

What is Paul saying in Romans 1?

A plain reading, the traditional view, has been that Paul is describing the conditions of humanity – perhaps using a specific Roman situation as an example. When Paul condemns the idolatry and homosexual behavior (we’ll try to avoid the anachronism of labeling it “homosexuality” for now) of the men and women about whom he writes, it’s generally considered to be a universal indictment, and therefore universally applicable to today’s culture, as well.

As Stanley K. Stowers describes this view in A Rereading of Romans, “Paul describes the problem so he can announce the solution of righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ.” Believe in Christ, and he will set you free from the passions and lust of this world, right?

Stowers argues this reading is flawed; indeed, some scholars have used the passage to criticize Paul’s “lack of objectivity and his rhetorical exaggeration.” Not everyone has actually done the things Paul lists in Romans 1: 23-32:

They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals, and reptiles. So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other. They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies. Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. They are gossips, they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy. Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve others who practice them.

In fact, quite a lot of people who don’t believe in God are quite the opposite of what is described, and they certainly haven’t traded one kind of sexual relation for another.

Further, in chapter 2, Paul says the exact opposite!

Gentiles don’t have the Law. But when they instinctively do what the Law requires they are a Law in themselves, though they don’t have the Law. They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it. … So if the person who isn’t circumcised keeps the Law, won’t his status of not being circumcised be counted as if he were circumcised? The one who isn’t physically circumcised but keeps the Law will judge you. You became a lawbreaker after you had the written Law and circumcision. It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.

Are gentiles utterly without hope, abandoned by God to their insatiable lusts and horrific crimes? Or are there some who follow the law despite not even knowing it, to the extent that they have more of a right to claim Jewishness than some Jews?

So we could conclude, as many scholars have, that Paul is employing gross exaggeration to the point of propaganda in chapter 1, or we could follow Stowers’ argument that the writer is not being as blatantly inconsistent as the text appears on its face.

Stowers instead sees Paul doing something else entirely in chapter 1.

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The Church’s Trouble With Women

If anything has been made clear to me this month, it’s this: Christianity has a gender problem.

First there was the kerfuffle over John Piper’s comments about the “masculine feel” of Christianity. The fact there even was a kerfuffle over them is encouraging, but let’s face it: John Piper’s influence far exceeds 100 angry blogs’.

Then there was the craziness over President Obama’s effort to make sure all women covered by a health insurance plan have access to free contraception – an important goal because access to birth control is a constitutionally protected right, it has health value beyond its stated purpose, and its stated purpose is far preferable to unplanned pregnancy, 30 percent of which end in abortions.

Well-intentioned people can disagree about whether the initial proposal was a good idea – it would not have forced a single Catholic to use birth control, so the reaction to it seemed a tad overwrought to me, especially since many states already had the exact same mandate without religious institutions falling into the abyss – but the compromise worked out by the Obama administration exempted religious-affiliated hospitals and universities while requiring insurance companies to provide it for free in those cases. Issue solved, right?

Well, no.

The bishops want every Catholic employer everywhere to be able to opt out of the contraception mandate, but this is another example of Christian leadership evincing a position that oppresses women – one clearly not supported by the women affected by that position.

This is the problem with hierarchalism in our church. My wife and I have three children; I’ve been an eyewitness to three full-term pregnancies and three labors, each with their own unique challenges and difficulties. I know as well as any man how hard it is to carry a baby to term and deliver it. Which still means I know just about nothing about being pregnant or having a baby. 

The much-ballyhooed figure is this: 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control. Even assuming that number is a little high (it’s actually 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who are able but not actively trying to have children, so nuns, the elderly and the pregnant, among others, are not included), it indicates yet another divorce between the assumptions of the men who run our churches and the women whose fealty they demand.

It seems wrong to me that a group of celibate men should call the shots on reproductive health for sexually active women, so let’s see what the women think.

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Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 2

Part 1

I opened this series by discussing Paul’s use of being effeminate in a vice list, equivalent with idolators, fornicators, adulterers, thieves, etc. Which seems wrong, assuming a modern-day definition of effeminacy, as well as modern-day knowledge of genetics.

But Stanley K. Stowers, in his Rereading of Romans, spends a chapter discussing Greco-Roman culture and how it influenced Paul’s views of sexuality. This is especially important in light of Romans 1, arguably the prooftext exemplar for those who argue the sinfulness of homosexuality.

Starting in 1:18, Paul launches into a diatribe against the gentiles, condemning their idolatry and accusing them of trading “God’s truth for a lie” (v.25)

That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. 27 Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies. 28 Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things. 29 So they were filled with all injustice, wicked behavior, greed, and evil behavior. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, deception, and malice. They are gossips, 30 they slander people, and they hate God. They are rude and proud, and they brag. They invent ways to be evil, and they are disobedient to their parents. 31 They are without understanding, disloyal, without affection, and without mercy. 32 Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve others who practice them.

On its surface – the “plain sense” of the text, if you will – this passage seems to be a broadside against same-sex intercourse of both genders. The problem starts with idolatry, then gets worse and worse until God essentially gives up and lets them do what they want, after which everyone starts sleeping with everyone else and the natural consequence of that behavior is a host of other sins and moral failings.

But there are some problems with that interpretation. Continue reading