Distinguishing multiple issues in churches’ debates over homosexual practice, part 1

Because I have sympathy for those who have been wounded by others’ insensitive and harsh treatment, sometimes in the name of Christ, the last thing that I wish to do is to add to their pain. At the same time, my primary vocation is as a Bible scholar, and I need to explain the text faithfully. Despite the pressing character of the debates in the church, I have long delayed this post because of my inadequacy to articulate sufficiently the balance between what I believe the text says and the needed pastoral sensitivity to apply it.

Framing the discussion charitably

Our politically partisan public culture lends itself to polarized expressions, playing to each side’s respective constituencies. Everyone is warned of the slippery slope consequences of the other side’s triumph on any elements of the debate. Although some of these consequences are plausible concerns, civil discourse invites us to do less name-calling and more dialogue. Discussion of homosexual behavior and faith today is so polarized that venturing into the issue at all frequently gets one pigeonholed as belonging to one extreme or the other—or, if one doesn’t buy into the polarization, pigeonholed as on the wrong side by both poles. Only because the issue is such a burning one in the church does it seem necessary to insert one’s neck into the guillotine of public debate.

Because I am familiar with only how these issues have been tied together in Western culture, I beg my many international readers’ indulgence for this one post as I try to address this issue with a largely Western Christian audience in mind. Because my public role is as a Bible scholar, my paramount professional concern is to avoid distorting the meaning of the biblical text. At the same time, as a pastor-teacher, I want to be sensitive to those wounded by those who have abused the text. That requires more delicate expression than may be possible in a blog post that will be read in different ways by different readers (even despite this particular post’s inordinate length). Thus I must beg the indulgence of my Western readers also.

Framing the discussion critically

Unfortunately, most Western Christians fail to distinguish various discrete questions—exegetical, pastoral, social, and so forth. Christians hopefully start by listening to Scripture. One question, then, is what biblical passages say about homosexual practice. Even when that question is resolved, however, another question is, based on wider biblical principles, how we should apply that information—in church practice, in pastoral ministry, and in how we treat our neighbors. The legal and political questions are yet another issue distinct from these.

Some voices, however, blend all these questions together as if holding one view on Scripture resolves all the other questions. To take the most extreme example I know of: when one country suggested the death penalty for particular homosexual offenses, critics were quick to blame the belief of many Christians that homosexual behavior is wrong, even though the vast majority of those who hold this belief opposed that policy. For another very extreme example: almost all Christians, however they read Paul, condemn the infamous and hateful cult known as Westboro Baptist Church, whose well-known, theologically perverted views I will not honor by repeating here. As another example of mixing categories, one who believes that the Bible condemns homosexual intercourse need not for that reason conclude that it should be illegal (since most do not, for example, insist on legal prohibitions for unmarried heterosexual intercourse or for gossip). Likewise, one who believes that the LGBT community has been mistreated by many churches need not for that reason assume that Paul did not in fact condemn homosexual practice, unless exegesis supports that conclusion.

There are multiple, distinct issues, and it is important to critically distinguish them. Tragically, the real human beings for whom these are personal issues often are forgotten in the political crossfire. I want to explore some of these questions briefly, in what I hope can be my only foray into the subject (thus the unusual length of this post).

What does the Bible say?

First, what do biblical passages say? For those who, by Christian conviction, stand under the authority of Scripture, this question is vitally important. Because I believe that the biblical passages about homosexual behavior are fairly clear (while conceding that not everyone agrees), my focus in this post is more on pastoral application. Nevertheless, I start by noting that, for the clearest passages, especially Romans 1, I believe that the majority exegetical position is strongest. A variety of interpretations exist, many advanced by very capable scholars, but most exegetes, whether they agree personally with Paul or not, still regard Romans 1 as disagreeing with homosexual practice. (By “majority exegetical position,” I refer to academic, exegetical commentators, not to the separate question of featured voices in popular media, although they too have a right to their say.)

I would be happy to be persuaded otherwise, but so far it continues to appear to me that this is where the exegesis strongly points. Paul’s argument from “nature” makes sense in light of both some Stoic and many Jewish arguments against homosexual activity based on nature, by which they meant not genetics but primarily anatomical design. Ancient Greek homosexual relations were often, but not exclusively, pederastic, but Paul speaks more generally and includes lesbian relations. (Adolescents were considered adults; many relations began just before puberty, but others continued into adolescence and some involved adults. Among Romans, the issue was less of age than of status and position.)

For better or for worse, this is also what nearly all exegetes concluded until recent decades when different interests came to the fore. My own discussion appears in my Romans commentary (and a briefer summary of ancient background in the background commentary), so I will not elaborate on the exegesis here. The debate will continue, but engaging it is not the purpose of this post. For the sake of staying on task here I will address primarily those who share my understanding that the passage disapproves of homosexual intercourse. My point in this post is less to argue about the meaning of this passage than to challenge the lumping together of separate questions.

Regarding the exegesis, I would simply note two points that too often go unmentioned: passages specifically addressing homosexual practice (as opposed to sexual sins in general) constitute less than one-tenth of one percent of Scripture. In thirty years of public preaching, I have only once had occasion to specifically address Romans 1:26-27 from the pulpit, and that was to help set up for the senior pastor’s sermon on a different part of Romans 1. I was not avoiding the subject per se; it is just that the other 99.9 percent was keeping me busy almost 99.9 percent of the time. (The issue was not a divisive one in our church.) Because public debate has raised the visibility of some issues, they consume a greater proportion of our exegetical attention than their representation in Scripture by itself might warrant. (Admittedly, proportions in Scripture should not necessarily limit the proportions of our preaching; for example, I have never yet had occasion to preach from Leviticus.)

My second point here is the more important. The strongest New Testament passage to challenge homosexual activity (Rom 1:26-27) is a set-up. Paul first condemns what his fellow ancient Jewish people regarded as stereotypical Gentile sins—idolatry and homosexual intercourse (Rom 1:19-27). After his Christian audience (1:7) is presumably applauding his condemnation of these activities, however, Paul turns to a wider list of vices, including greed (certainly a widespread value in U.S. culture), envy, gossip, slander, disobedience to parents, and so forth. All these sins, Paul concludes, merit death (1:28-32). Perhaps I am the only Christian who has done so, but I confess that I have committed some of these other vices myself. (I cannot, then, cast the first stone.) If we shout against homosexual practice yet tolerate or even celebrate materialism or gossip in our churches or in our lives, we miss Paul’s point.

As many people note, we are even more inconsistent if we denounce homosexual sin while ignoring heterosexual sin—which is probably included in 1:24. It’s easier to rail against other people’s temptations than to address our own. When some Christians overgeneralize as if everyone who is gay or lesbian is hostile to religious freedom, or use the most militantly anti-Christian elements of the gay community to depict everyone who is gay or lesbian, might that not even count as slander?

Part II addresses pastoral practice, church and society, and loving one’s neighbor

The renewing of the mind, Romans 12:2

In this lecture from Feb. 5, Craig talks about the renewing of the mind and provides exegetical insights on Romans 12:1-3. He addresses also the interplay between spiritual intuition (what we often call “being led by the Spirit”) and godly wisdom, in raising the question, How do we discern God’s will?

The other (previous) two lectures in this series were, first:


and, second (better than the first, and especially relevant to this third one, by tracing the theme of the mind earlier in Romans):



The Mind of the Spirit–Romans 8

This is Craig’s lecture from February 4, based on 4 chapters of his future book on the Mind of the Spirit. This lecture treats the theme of the mind in Romans 1 (the fallen mind), 6:11 (the mind of faith), 7:7-25 (the mind under the law), and 8:5-7 (the mind of the Spirit). This is a good one!

This video starts at the beginning and is found at:

(For those who missed it but want to view it, the previous video in the series, on the mind of Christ in 1 Corinthians 2:16, appears at http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/58631773)

Grafted into the heritage of God’s people–Romans 11

The publisher has graciously given permission to post my article on Romans from the multi-authored, popular-level book UNITY: Awakening the One New Man, which especially addresses the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Feel free click on the link to read my chapter on Romans, which addresses how Gentile followers of Jesus have been grafted into the heritage of God’s people and also how they are called to honor the Jewish people.

Link: http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?ca=2026c32b-68b6-4e17-a887-ca18a0420b68&c=c40802f0-2987-11e3-b570-d4ae529a848a&ch=c443fa80-2987-11e3-b5a5-d4ae529a848a

Racial reconciliation in Romans

Why did Paul have to spend so much time in Romans arguing from the Old Testament that salvation was by grace through faith? Were there any real Christians who doubted this? Reading Romans as an entire book explains the reason for each passage within that book, and each passage in turn helps us understand the letter as a whole. At least one central issue is that Paul addresses a controversy over Jewish and Gentile practices.

Paul begins Romans by emphasizing that the Gentiles are lost (Rom 1:18-32); just as some Jewish Christian listeners might be applauding, Paul points out that religious people are also lost (Rom 2), and summarizes that everyone is lost (Rom 3). Paul establishes that all humanity is equally lost to remind us that all of us have to come to God on the same terms; none of us can boast against others.

But most Jewish people believed that they were chosen for salvation in Abraham; therefore Paul reminds his fellow Jewish believers in Jesus that it is spiritual rather than ethnic descent from Abraham that matters for salvation (Rom 4). Lest any Jewish hearers continue to stress their genetic descent, he reminds them that all people—including themselves—descend from the same human sinner (5:12-21).

Most Jewish people believed that most Jews kept the Bible’s many laws (at least most of the time), whereas most Gentiles did not even keep the few commandments (often numbered as seven) that many Jews believed God gave to Noah. So Paul argues that while the law is good, trying to keep it never saved its practitioners, including Paul (Rom 7); only Jesus Christ can save us! And lest Paul’s fellow Jewish believers continue to appeal to their chosenness in Abraham, Paul reminds them that not all Abraham’s physical descendants were chosen with respect to the promise, even in the first two generations (Rom 9:6-13). God was so sovereign that he was not bound to choosing people on the basis of their ethnicity (9:18-24). He could choose people on the basis of their faith in Christ.

But lest the Gentile Christians look down on their Jewish siblings, Paul also reminds them that the heritage into which they had been grafted was, after all, Israel’s (Rom 11). God had a Jewish remnant, and would one day turn the majority of Jewish people to faith in Christ (11:25-26).

At this point Paul gets very practical. Christians must serve one another (Rom 12); the heart of God’s law is actually loving one another (13:8-10). Ancient literature shows that Roman Gentiles made fun of Roman Jews especially for their food laws and holy days; Paul argues that we should not look down on one another because of such minor differences of practice (Rom 14).

Paul then provides examples of ethnic reconciliation: Jesus though Jewish ministered to the Gentiles (15:7-12), as he shows lavishly through Scripture. Moreover, Paul himself was bringing an offering from Gentile churches for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, to whom Gentile believers owed the message of salvation (15:25-31). In the midst of his closing greetings, Paul offers one final exhortation: Beware of those who cause division (16:17). One division that was central in the Roman church seems to be a division over Jewish and Gentile practices.

Getting the whole picture of Romans provides us a clearer understanding of the function of each particular passage in the work as a whole. It also suggests the sort of situation that the letter addresses. What we know of the “background” sheds more light on this situation: Rome earlier expelled the Jewish Christians (Acts 18:1-3), but now they have returned (Rom 16:3). This suggests that the Roman house churches, which had consisted completely of Gentile believers for many years, now face conflict with some of the Jewish believers who had different cultural ways of doing things.

I first noticed wider implications of this picture when I became a white associate minister in an African-American church in the U.S. South about a quarter of a century ago. I already understood the importance of Jewish-Gentile issues in Romans; it was one key element that tied most of the letter together. Nevertheless, it was when I began grappling with where the Bible addressed ethnic reconciliation that I turned to Romans and other passages. I quickly realized that early Christians’ struggles to bring Jewish and Gentile (or Samaritan) believers together had tremendous implications for us today.

If God summons us to surmount a barrier that he himself had established in Scripture (the barrier separating Israel from Gentiles), how much more does he summon us to surmount every other barrier that has been established merely by human sinfulness? Racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, sexism and many other -isms are just human selfishness taken to a group level—preferring our group above others. Jesus is the answer for sin, and he wants to deliver us from both selfishness for ourselves and our groups.

Paul’s letter to the Romans summons Christians to ethnic, cultural, tribal reconciliation with one another by reminding us that all of us must come to God on the same terms, through Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.

(Craig also authored a commentary on Romans, here.)

Confess with your mouth, believe in your heart—Romans 10:9-10

We often quote Romans 10:9-10 out of context, though we get the basic idea correct (it is talking about salvation). A fuller understanding of the context can help us better appreciate why Paul words these verses the way he does.

Some people were arguing that they could be saved by their good works, by obeying the Bible, rather than by Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Rom 10:5). So Paul quoted the same Bible they professed to obey, showing how even in the Old Testament God saved people by grace. (He has already argued in Romans 4 that Abraham was made right with God through faith, i.e., through trusting him.)

In Romans 10, Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 30 and makes comparisons with Christ:

Moses said that no one needed to ascend to heaven to bring down the law again (Deut 30:12); God had already freely given the law. Paul makes a comparison: in the same way, he says, no one needs to ascend to heaven to bring down Christ again: God already sent him freely (Rom 10:6).

Moses said that no one needed to descend into the depths of the sea again (Deut 30:13); God had already redeemed his people and brought them through the sea. Paul makes another comparison: no one needs to descend to the depths, as if to bring Christ up from the dead; God already raised him (Rom 10:7).

Rather, Moses said, the law is already available, in Israel’s mouths and hearts if they chose to embrace it (Deut 30:14; cf. Deut 5:29; 6:6-7; 10:16; 30:6). Likewise, Paul claims that the message about faith in Christ is similarly available, in our mouths and hearts, if we embrace it (Rom 10:8).

Then he goes on to explain what he means by “in your mouth and in your heart”: it is by confessing with our mouth Jesus’ Lordship, and by believing that he is risen and alive, that we are saved. Naturally, genuine faith that Jesus is the true and living Lord will transform the way we live; but the transformation comes through accepting Christ, not through mere moral self-help efforts apart from faith in Christ.

To whom is this promise available? In the following verses, Paul emphasizes the words “whoever” and “all”: the Bible says that “whoever” believes will not be shamed (Rom 10:11); Christ is Lord of “all,” whether Jew or Gentile (10:12); and (again quoting the Bible, now from Joel) “Whoever” calls on the Lord’s name will be saved (10:13). This fits Paul’s theme throughout Romans: the gospel is for Jew and Gentile alike, not on the basis of Israel’s laws, but on the basis of God’s gift in Jesus Christ.

The passage does not, however, stop by explaining salvation. It also talks about how this “message of faith” (10:8) that we “confess with our mouth” gets spread. How can people call on Jesus without believing in him? Or believe in him without hearing about him? And how can they hear without someone bringing them the message? Sometimes we also quote out of context Romans 10:17: “faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the message about Christ.” In context, 10:17 refers to saving faith through hearing the gospel.

Romans 10:9-10 talk about the mouth and the heart not as if this is the single New Testament formula for salvation (for example, as if every salvation text must mention the mouth, or as if deaf-mutes cannot be saved, neither of which is true). Rather, Paul is explaining a text from the Old Testament that mentions the mouth and the heart. Yet both texts mention the mouth and the heart because they are intimately connected. If we really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, can we be silent about him? Rather, “shout it from the housetops” (Matt 10:27)! Our Savior is alive, he has set our hearts on fire, and we ought to tell the world about him!

This article is adapted from one that Craig wrote for the Missionary Seer in 2006. Craig is author of 17 books, including 1-2 Corinthians (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Minding Christ’s body—Romans 12:1-6

Paul summons believers to present themselves to God as a living, holy, and pleasing sacrifice to God (Rom 12:1). That is, he calls for total consecration, what some nineteenth-century Holiness preachers called, “laying all on the altar.” Moreover, he identifies this sacrifice as one’s “rational service,” a form of worship offered by a mind that thinks about reality in the right way. (Though some translations render the Greek word here as spiritual, the term more often involves the intellect.)

This consecration to God contrasts with blending into the world and its values that dominate the present age: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Too often the world around us sets our agendas for what we value: status, wealth, convenience, sex, honor, and so forth.

Worldliness takes different forms in different cultures. One example in much of Western culture is that most of us cannot readily understand the concept of a “Lord.” While there are definite advantages in having a president rather than a king, U.S. culture is accustomed to voting for or against presidents, and then criticizing them afterward even if we voted for them. Voters expect them to work for (or against) our special interest groups. But Jesus is not our president; he is our Lord. We have often reduced God to a means to give us what we want, instead of considering how we may serve God.

Yet Paul tells us the outcome of our minds being renewed: we perform our rational service of yielding our lives to God’s service (Rom 12:1-2). We also learn to recognize God’s will: that which is “good, pleasing, and perfect” (12:2). Paul here describes God’s will with three adjectives, one of them carried over from the three adjectives describing the living sacrifice in 12:1. The renewed mind recognizes what is good, and acts accordingly, for that is God’s will. Paul goes on to show that the renewed mind is not self-centered, but thinks about how to use God’s gifts to serve others (12:3-6). Sometimes we need to pray for the Spirit’s guidance, but sometimes God has already given us guidance and we just don’t want to recognize it. If I see needs, and God has equipped me to help meet those needs, I don’t need to pray for guidance; I already have guidance. We must use our bodies to serve Christ’s body (12:1, 4-5).

What we choose to meditate on, what we deliberately fill our minds with, will be what shapes our understanding of our identity, mission and activity in this world. As early programmers said about computers, “garbage in, garbage out”: what you put in is what you get out, whether data or nonsense. If we use our free time to imbibe more deeply the values of the present world, we will inevitably conform to those values. If instead we fill our thoughts with God’s Word and God’s values, God might just use us as prophetic voices to speak God’s heart to our world and his church today.

This adapts an article originally written for the A.M.E. Zion Missionary Seer. Craig Keener is author of a commentary on Romans (Cascade 2009).