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. If we call this a condemnation of homosexuality, we must recognize that “homosexuality” as a concept was foreign to Paul and his audience; the word itself is only about 150 years old. Certainly homosexuality as we understand it – a monogamous relationship between two consensual adults – would have been foreign to Paul’s world.

Nevertheless, the condemnation of men sleeping with men and women with women seems clear enough, and I hope it’s not a controversial idea to try to figure out what Paul would have meant when he wrote those words – what he expected his audience to take away from his comments.

Stowers argues that “Paul was fully implicated in the values and discourse of his society, time and social group.” Paul didn’t parrot those values, Stowers says. In fact, he upended them in certain, vitally important ways. But he and his audience shared a common set of assumptions and a common vocabulary as first-century residents of the Roman Empire that we do not and cannot share as residents of 21st century America.

One of the dominant cultural themes of Paul’s day was the importance of self-mastery.

The theme of self-mastery would have loomed very large for ancient readers of Romans but is scarcely noticed by modern readers. It has receded deeply into the background for contemporaries because the concept of self-mastery has none of the powerfully loaded social and cultural meaning for us as it did for people in Paul’s day.

What is self-mastery? If you think it’s akin to modern-day self-discipline, you’re only half right. Self-mastery was a much more intense notion – lack of it wasn’t just a lapse in moral rectitude, it was a flaw of such magnitude it could bring down the empire.

It’s important to know this because, as Stowers notes, “self-mastery as a personal, social and theological problem is the most palpable issue of [Romans] chapters 1-8, a point not lost on the ancient interpreters of Romans.”

The concreteness of this issue comes about above all because Romans explicitly identifies lack of self-control as the audience’s problem. This failure has characterized their moral past and threatens their moral and religious futures if they seek righteousness through works of the law.

Self-mastery is a dominant theme not just in Romans, but in other nonbiblical writings contemporary to Paul, and the idea that gentiles lacked it was common to Jewish apologetic literature of the era, exemplified by the writings of Josephus and Philo. I’m definitely a history nerd, so we’ll look at the history of self-mastery and what it meant to Paul in the next post.

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