A lot of progressive Christians argue that the historical context of the New Testament restricts the scope of the so-called “clobber texts” about homosexuality. Jesus and the Apostles, they say, had no concept of the modern development of a loving, consensual, monogamous homosexual relationship. Therefore in places like Romans 1 where they seemed to condemn gay or lesbian practices, the condemnations were really only limited to the exploitative and/or idolatrous practices of the day, not all homosexuality. We can all agree that prostitution, pedophilia, and cultic sex are wrong, and those are basically the only kinds of homosexual practices the New Testament actually forbids.
My experiment here is to grant their argument and run with it. Let’s say that the progressives are right, that Paul and Jesus knew nothing of the kind of homosexual relationships which occur today. Let’s grant that their condemnation of homosexual practices was contingent on their historical context. In that case, our question for today can be framed as follows: in our present historical context, are the kinds of homosexuality practiced associated with something idolatrous or destructive? I think the answer to this question is still, “Yes,” so that even if the biblical condemnations of homosexuality were context-specific, applying biblical reasoning to our own historical context indicts today’s forms of homosexuality as well.
How do I arrive at this point? I place homosexuality then (Bible times) and now in narrative perspective. Where does homosexuality fit into the wider theological narrative of God, man, Israel, Christ, the Church, and the world? For all my disagreements with him, I think Andrew Perriman gets the logic of Romans 1 more or less right, so I will build from a foundation roughly corresponding to his his narrative account.
Why did Paul speak so strongly against homosexuality in Romans 1? In context, the kinds of homosexuality practiced in Greek and Roman civilization was part of the deterioration of Gentile civilization produced by idolatry. Since as early as Babel, the Gentiles had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for other gods, images of wood and stone. They served the creation rather than the Creator. By taking the Creator out of the picture in exchange for created gods, they paved the way for disorienting the use of all created things, human bodies included. They used their bodies in shameful ways to satisfy their shameful gods in open rebellion against the true Creator God. All of this became particularly acute in the Romans world as the height of pre-Christian, Gentile civilization. The Roman committment to false gods led to decadence and gross abuse of human bodies, which had been made to serve the true God. Thus they received in themselves the due penalty for their error, and God’s wrath was a-comin’.
The situation since then has changed. The pre-Christian Gentile world, the world of the pagan Roman Empire, has been destroyed. It was replaced by Christendom, a world order in which the nations confessed Christ as Lord (however imperfect and problematic this order turned out to be). The Church did its best to construct fitting new culture, new worldview, and new intellectual concepts for this order from reflection on Scripture and Christian tradition, and these came to dominate Christendom. So for a thousand years Christendom remained and the nations remained mostly submissive (at least nominally) to Christian thought and ethics.
But all this began to change around the time of the Enlightenment. The causes of the change are mostly unimportant here. What matters is that there was a new wave of rebellion. The old world rebellion began with worshipping false gods and idols, but the new rebellion was based on worship of man. It produced humanism, materialism, atheism, naturalism, and rationalism. Man no longer felt the need to serve a god, whether a true or false one. Rather, man decided he was able to accomplish all things by himself and be all things to himself. This has had to take a decidedly neo-Gnostic slant. The old pagans saw creation and nature as run by gods, Christendom saw them as the work of the one God, and modern humanism sees them either as shackles of givnenness to be broken or as raw material to be reshaped in man’s preferred image.
The transition from old Christendom worldview to the new humanistic one has been slow, but it has come, like the old pagan system, to express itself in sexual deviance. The Sexual Revolution neatly and naturally followed the rebellious, humanistic spirit of the age to assert human capacity and freedom over and against divine authority. The idea is that humanity is grown-up now: we don’t need old rules supposedly from God to tell us how to handle sexual ethics. We’re now all set to do whatever we please. This led to acceptance of contraception, divorce, sexual activity before marriage, and at this present stage the entire LGBT movement. The modern world’s neo-Gnosticism can be seen here, as well: the natural reproductive order was created before our wills, but for humanity to be all in all we must assert our wills over and against this basic physical component to human existence. Biological sex is unchosen, gifted from God, and if we are to escape God’s dominion we must be able to reconstruct and redefine gender and sex without reference to the realities of the body, or to reshape the body around our conceptions of gender and sex.
I think this narrative makes sense of what has been happening in modern history. The first rebellion put Gentiles under the dominion of false gods, and it led to the degredation of the body in idolatrous rites and decadent sexual arrangements. This new, post-Christendom rebellion puts mankind in the West under no one but himself, and thus leads to the attempt to self-transcend and redefine the body for our own ends and impulses. The old order acknowledged the givenness of reality but refused to honor God for it, and so honored false gods. The new order, in its own attempt to escape God, denies the givenness of reality and seeks to give humanity unlimited power over all things, our own bodies included. It is easy to see how the LGBT movement fits into this narrative.
If the narrative offered above is at all, the progressive argument that biblical prohibitions against homosexuality were only about the context-specific forms of homosexuality which plagued the ancient world does nothing to exonerate homosexuality today. On the contrary, a look at our context reveals how modern homosexuality can also be condemned in a context-specific way, as part of the modern rebellion of humanism, which contrasts with the rebellion condemned in Romans 1 of literal idolatry. Then and now, homosexuality is part of a larger human rebellion against the true God. And this (I think) suggests a deeper link between homosexuality and sin, so that homosexual practices would be likely only to emerge on notable scales in contexts of rebellion. But that would be another post.