The man responsible for much of our New Testament is a complex character indeed. Converted from Judaism after a divine revelation, Paul dedicated his life to founding Christ’s church in the first century. His letters are compelling—mostly containing instruction and code of conduct for the early congregations. Paul was anointed, no doubt. He offered a profound perspective of our history that lives on today. I cannot fathom what Christianity would be without his contributions.
Paul has always been my favorite biblical author. His letters seem to transcend time and culture to speak to the hearts of those who seek Jesus. How then, can I read his letters as a lesbian, and still be in love with this ancient trailblazer? You know the passages I speak of: Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9, and I Timothy 1:9-10.
We’ve already explored these scriptures in other posts. If you wish to take an exegetical look at these passages, please go here. My intent and purpose of this post is to explore the humanity of Paul. What was his world-view? What were his traditions? What were the cultural norms of his time? What were his prejudices? I think it’s important to bring a certain degree of reason to the table when looking at the Scriptures. In no way do I claim to have it all figured out. I’m on a journey; my convictions and philosophies may very well change, and I’m open to that. This post is more of a means to hash out thoughts and feelings, and less of an intent to change minds. It is always my hope that this site will remain a safe place for all people to discuss the issue of Christianity and homosexuality.
Before I could make a personal decision about Paul’s letters, I had to really evaluate what I thought about the Scriptures. I grew up in a conservative atmosphere, where every word out of my English translation was considered infallible. It was years before I realized my Bible wasn’t translated word for word directly from the mouth of God. While translation isn’t the topic I want to dwell on here, I think it’s important to consider that errors exist. I was well into my twenties before I began to realize that I was no longer a biblical literalist. I have to be careful with that terminology. This doesn’t mean that I interpret the supernatural aspects of the Bible figuratively. I fully believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, etc. I wholeheartedly believe in the divinity of Jesus. What I’m addressing here is cherry-picking verses from the Bible to make a point. Some call this proof-texting. Many times, proof-texting is done without the consideration of culture, specific circumstance, or author intent. Sometimes, proof-texting can even ignore additional references that may shed light on the text in question. Let me give you an example:
In I Corinthians, Paul addresses the issue of incest. It angers him to the point that he instructs the congregation to excommunicate the guilty man.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Cor. 5:1, 4b-5, NRSV).
There have been many people throughout Church history that have used this text as a means to support excommunication for an individual such as this. However, what we don’t see in this text is something that Paul addresses in his second letter to the church at Corinth. In II Corinthians 2, Paul actually changes his mind!
“But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he might not be overwhelmed with excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm you love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be out-witted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (II Cor. 2:5-11).
Paul “took back” what he said! This was an “aha moment” for me—and one that resonates. What can we glean from this?
Paul was human.
When we read his letters, we must remember that. Yes, he was indeed anointed; he was led by the Holy Spirit. But he was also a full-time member of the human race. He made mistakes. He had struggles. And like us, he contended daily against the schemes of evil, and constantly grappled with his understanding of this Jesus who flew in the face of his cultural prejudices.
So what did Paul think about homosexuals? Honestly, I believe he did not (and could not) comprehend monogamous homosexual relationships as they exist today. Homosexual practices of Paul’s time were generally implemented as a facet of pagan worship. Paul was also a Jew—a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin. Therefore, he was familiar with the Holiness Code of the Old Testament, which also prohibited homosexual relations in order to ensure the lineage of the Israelites continued. Paul was a product of his time and culture. If he was living among us today, I think he would be seeking answers along with the rest of us. To be sure, Paul absolutely knew what it meant to be transformed by the unconditional love of Christ. Once a persecutor of Christ-followers himself, Paul fell before Jesus at his conversion on the road to Damascus. He was the one that God had chosen to preach salvation to the Jews and Gentiles alike. I cannot imagine the flood of emotions Paul must have felt—once a murderer, and now a vessel of God’s inclusive love!
That is my prayer for all of us. May we recognize the fierce, counter-cultural love of Jesus, and may we carry that knowledge to those in our lives. No matter where we are or where we’ve been, may we identify that one thing that is at the center of us all: