Rev. Yme Woensdregt
In my last two columns, I wrote that there are other texts in the Bible which help guide faithful Christians to live in a more loving way with our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community. Too often, so–called Bible–believing Christians quote a very small number of texts (only 7) which seem to condemn homosexual relationships.
In fact, those texts do nothing of the sort. I mentioned in my column last week that I read a very interesting article which explains the cultural context of those texts which seem to condemn homosexual behavior. It was written by Dr. Jonathan Tallon who teaches Biblical Studies at Northern Baptist College in Manchester in the UK. In this article, he details the cultural context in which those texts were written, and he shows very clearly that they are speaking about a very different kind of behavior.
He begins with the notion that most of the time, our problem with the Bible isn’t trying to understand it, but rather trying to follow it in our daily lives. He says, for example, that ‘Love God’ and ‘love your neighbour’ are “simple, straightforward commands that we constantly try to achieve and yet constantly fall down on them.”
But that’s not the case with these very few texts about homosexuality. These texts were written in a very different cultural context than ours. Ancient Roman society understood homosexuality quite differently, and there is no simple way to translate those texts in the 21st century. As Tallon says, “the Bible doesn’t really say anything at all about homosexuality as we understand it today.”
Let’s begin with today’s understanding of homosexuality. A fundamental part of our knowledge today is the idea of ‘sexual orientation’—that most adults are sexually attracted to one gender or the other. We have terms for this: ‘heterosexual’ for those who are attracted to the other gender than their own, ‘homosexual’ for those attracted to the same gender, and ‘bisexual’ for those attracted to both. So when I say, “He is homosexual,” we understand that he is attracted to other men, and that he may be in relationship with a man.
And then we open our Bible to 1 Corinthians 6:9 and see a reference to “homosexual perverts” (Good News Bible), or when we read Romans 1:27 about “men committing shameful acts with other men” (New International Version), it seems that the plain meaning of the Bible is staring us in the face.
But here’s the problem: we’re not comparing like with like. We’re comparing apples with poodles.
In ancient Rome, homosexuality had nothing to do with sexual orientation. It was about sexual dominance. In fact, a married freeborn man “could rape his male and female slaves, rape boys, and sleep with prostitutes, and neither his masculinity nor his sexuality (nor indeed his honour) would be in question at all.”
In ancient Rome, sexuality wasn’t defined by which gender you had sex with, but whether you were the dominant, active partner, or alternatively the submissive, passive one. “So long as a freeborn man was the dominant partner, little else mattered so long as no one else’s honour was affected.”
In other words, sexuality was not tied to orientation, as it is today. Sexuality was tied to action. To be the active partner was to be virile and manly. To be a passive partner was to be weak and effeminate.
Perhaps the most alien thing to us is that it was common for adult males to be sexually intimate with adolescent boys. There were no legal sanctions. It was simply part of everyday life.
What this means is that same–sex activity by an adult male was practically always abusive. The passive partner was “used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged.”
So let’s be clear. When the Bible talks about males having sex with males, everyone would understand that to mean men raping and abusing boys, usually slaves.
Were there Roman homosexual couples as we understand it today? We just don’t know. They mainly remained hidden from the rest of society. If the secret became known, it would destroy the reputation and honour of at least one of the couple.
When we read the Bible’s statements about sexuality, we have to be aware of this understanding at that time, which is completely different than ours.
It shows how misleading using a term like ‘homosexuality’ is when talking of the New Testament. It simply doesn’t mean the same thing it means today. The ancient world was generally uninterested in questions of orientation, and much more concerned with questions of action. The language was all about who was the active, dominant partner, and who was the passive, submissive participant.
How does this affect our reading of Scripture? At the very least, it should stop us from making the naïve assumption that Paul and other authors were using the word the same way we do. It’s just not so.
Today, we talk about loving same–gender couples who live in long term relationships. That is entirely different from the ancient world of Rome. In fact, the Bible doesn’t have a word for “homosexuality” in the way we use it today.
And so we need to be careful about how we treat those who are different from us. We need, as I wrote in the previous two columns, to find ways of living together in loving, gentle, and compassionate ways.
As a meme on facebook puts it, “If it’s not love, it’s not Christian.”
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook