26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)
Clobber Passage Context: Sex was not viewed the same in Paul’s Day
We’ve stumbled across another Clobber Passage! Clobber Passages are Bible quotes used by more conservative circles to uphold their beliefs that God condemns homosexuality. There are six – give or take – so-called Clobber Passages. I discussed the first one last February when we read the story about Lot and his family leaving Sodom and Gomorrah. I go into more detail in that blog post, but in a nutshell: the “wicked thing” being condemned in the Genesis passage is rape, not consensual sex. Today, we can deconstruct the condemnation of homosexuality even further.
First and foremost, it is important to remember context. While there were certainly gay people through-out history, including ancient history, the full expression of sexuality as we know it today was seldom – if ever – possible. As this article does an excellent job of explaining, sex was transactional and driven more often by power than by love or attraction. Again, there were surely loving couples out there, but with arranged marriages, extreme gender inequality, and a need to reproduce (more kids meant more workers, and could be married off to cement alliances and family ties), sex carried much larger socio-political implications, at a personal level, than it does today.
Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality a symptom of upholding the patriarchy
So that’s the context within which Paul is operating: where sex is a tool (or sometimes weapon) of a patriarchal society. Paul radically changed the faith landscape of the early church with some very progressive ideas, but in vv. 22-27, he’s upholding the patriarchy in three primary ways:
First, Paul alludes to cultic prostitution. This continues the tradition of vilifying Canaanite religious practices to uphold Judeo-Christian beliefs and the primacy of Hellenistic culture. Canaan was a near-by Middle Eastern kingdom. In fact, it was where God led Moses as the Promised Land. There were a fair number of related cultural and religious practices between early Canaanites and Israelites. In order to distinguish themselves as God’s chosen people, early authors of the Bible began to sensationalize some Canaanite religious practices. Early Greek historians, keen on proving their culture was superior, continued to portray the Canaanites (and others) as barbaric, primitive tribes. You can read a little more backstory on Canaan (and why they were so reviled by the authors of the Bible) here, but long story short, a lot of vv. 24-25 have more to do with rejecting an entire belief system than specific sexual practices.
Second, control of sex means control of women. When a woman isn’t allowed to control her reproductive rights, who she marries, or even how she can appear in public because she might inadvertently cause a man to sin, all of her agency is taken away. Female sexuality was a huge threat to patriarchal societies. Acknowledging a woman’s sexual desires meant acknowledging that women have desires, and may even – gasp! – want to express them. If that stopped in the bedroom perhaps that would be alright, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If women got what they wanted in bed, they may want to start expressing their desires in other ways, like having more control over household finances or having a say in religious matters. Patriarchal leaders understood this, even if they perhaps did not state it so explicitly. By tying female sexuality to female morality, men found a way to control women in a physical and emotional way. This is why Paul condemns women alongside men in v. 26. It was his knee-jerk reaction to women possibly becoming too free in a society that had long built itself around male dominance.
Finally, I think Paul had a real personal fear of gay men. A lot of straight men find male homosexuality uncomfortable. Women walk around in a world where half the population is physically stronger than them, and we are used to navigating this. But for men it’s the opposite: they’re used to walking around a world where they’re automatically stronger than half the population. The average man’s fear of being physically overpowered at any given time is much lower than the average woman’s. In other words, it’s hard for a woman to rape a man. But a man raping a man? That’s a much more even playing field, and I think this fear of physical overpowerment – however unfounded it may be – is what made Paul (and many other straight men) uncomfortable with gay men. Add the fact that Paul was “afflicted,” in other words physically incapacitated somehow, he may have felt particularly vulnerable to a physical or sexual attack.
The real message of this chapter is to love and respect God and eachother.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be completely objective in your writing, however divinely inspired it may be. I think that’s what we see here with Paul. He’s telling his readers that, as followers of Christ, it is important to behave in a loving and respectful manner to each other and to God. He gets back on the right track when he condemns a lot more than just potential homosexuality in the verses following this clobber passage: Evil, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, disrespect of parents; lack of fidelity, lovelessness, unmerciful. These charges are all charges that stem from a lack of love and respect. You don’t deceive someone you love, nor gossip about them nor disrespect them. If God is someone you love, then you also wouldn’t turn from “the glory of Immortal God” to worship “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”
That’s the larger message of this passage: to act out of love and respect. It’s hard, people are tedious. We get tired and aren’t our own best selves. Sometimes love and respect come with gray areas. For example, am I acting in my girls’ best interest if I let them sort out sharing a toy, even if there’s some physical altercation involved between them, or do I need to step in and intervene every time? Arguments can be made for both positions. But we have a lifetime to keep practicing love and respect, and like any habit, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Hopefully, one of the first things we can leave behind us is clobbering people with maligned Bible passages.