This is the text of a recent podcast, for those who prefer the sound of their own inner voice. My book End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission (2019) grew out of many conversations in a missional context about the problems and opportunities created by the widespread legalisation of same-sex marriage. It seems to me that the issue provides us with a powerful lens for reviewing the nature of Paul’s mission and for reimagining the function of the church, particularly in the post-Christian West. This podcast looks at Paul’s critique of a Greek civilisation distinguished by the prominence given to certain forms of homosexual activity, and considers the implications of the fact that this critique belonged to a story that ended long ago. A few more such podcasts can be found here (nothing fancy) or on Podbean.
Paul in Athens
Paul is on his own in Athens, waiting for the arrival of Silas and Timothy (Acts 17:16). He is disturbed by the sight of all the idols in the city—therefore, Luke tells us, he engages in debates both in the synagogue and in the marketplace every day with those who happen to be there. The logical connection is important. Because Athens is stacked with idols, jostling for attention, in the way that modern cities are bedecked with advertisements for cheap burgers and expensive watches, his spirit is provoked within him, and he needs to talk.
He argues with the Jews about it. “Why do you put up with this?” we may imagine him asking. “Why aren’t you offended by it? Why aren’t you out on the streets protesting against it?”
Or perhaps, as he says in Romans, clearly disappointed with the lousy quality of the Jewish witness in such cities as Athens: “You who claim to abhor idols, what are you doing robbing temples? You who boast in the Law—look, you dishonour God by not keeping the Law. Because of you the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles!” (Rom. 2:22-24).
He also argues with the Greeks; and the idle, chattering philosophers, for which Athens was famous, are left wondering what “Jesus” and the “resurrection” have to do with this quarrelsome Jew’s disdain for the city’s splendid statuary. So they give this “sower of strange ideas” from the East, this “scrapmonger of beliefs”—that’s roughly the idea behind the word spermologos—a chance to explain himself.
Paul seizes the opportunity with both hands.
Men of Athens, he says, the God who created all things made humankind to live on the face of the earth “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27). But if he created us, if he is the ground of our being, if we are his “family,” as even your own poets say, how can you think that he may be represented by these images of metal or wood or stone?
The critique would not have ruffled too many philosophical feathers in Athens. Many in his audience would have agreed with him.
It would be a very different story in Ephesus when the apostles were charged with offences against both public piety and the local economy for rashly proclaiming that “gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26). A riot broke out—a Twitter storm, if they’d had Twitter.
But what Paul goes on to say must have left his audience baffled.
The ignorance of the Greeks
The God of the Jews, he says, will not put up with this “ignorance” any longer. He has had enough.
In book three of the Sibylline Oracles, a Jewish text from the second century BC, the author asks the Greeks why they offer vain gifts to the dead and sacrifice to idols. “Who put error in your minds to do these things and depart from the face of the great God?” (Sib. Or. 3:548–549*).
Paul could have asked the same question.
The author then fills in the historical background:
It is a thousand years and five hundred more since the overbearing kings of the Greeks reigned, who began the first evils for mortals, setting up many idols of dead gods. On account of them you have been taught vain thinking. (3:551–555)
Here we see, very clearly, that this is not a universal analysis of humanity’s revolt against God. It is a historically focused critique of Greek idolatry—where it came from, and where it would end:
But when the wrath of the great God comes upon you, then indeed you will recognise the face of the great God. (3:556–557)
Transformative events would open their eyes to the truth about God.
The dominant culture would be dismantled. The ruling Greeks would be replaced by a “a sacred race of pious men”—that is, the Jews—who worship the great God, who keep his laws, who alone have access to divine wisdom and understanding, who will bring joy to mortals, who are “mindful of holy wedlock, and… do not engage in impious intercourse with male children” (3:556-600). There, you see!
Paul knew these arguments, quite possibly these texts.
Another Hellenistic-Jewish work, the Wisdom of Solomon, which dates from the first century BC, tells the same story. Idols did not exist from the beginning, they entered the world through human conceit, they are hateful to God, and there will be a “visitation also upon the idols of the nations”—a judgment, an end to them (Wis. 14:11).
Paul could have said the same thing, more or less. His speech to the men of Athens in the Areopagus is cut from the same polemical cloth, it shares the same presuppositions—except that he no longer thought that his own people were fit for purpose.
So here’s his thesis, here’s his gospel….
The Greeks have been assigned by God a time and a space—historical time, geographical space—to build a civilisation (Acts 17:26).
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. (Acts 17:26–27)
At the heart of that civilisational endeavour should have been a seeking after, a groping towards the creator who is the ground of their being. But instead, from the outset, they turned from his face and prostrated themselves before their manufactured gods. And ever since then, they have been taught vain thinking—they have developed and propagated, through the many channels of popular culture, a whole worldview in denial of the reality of the one God.
Now, however, after all these centuries, God’s patience has finally been exhausted. Indeed, he has fixed a day when he will judge this whole idolatrous “civilisation.” The word oikouménē, in Luke’s writings in particular, virtually means “empire”—in effect, the world under the rule of Caesar (Lk. 2:1; Acts 11:28; 19:27; 24:5).
So far that is all in keeping with the standard and well documented Jewish critique of Greek and Roman religion. But then Paul’s argument takes an unexpected turn. God will judge this world, he says, not directly, not personally, but “by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
An obscure rabbi, teacher, miracle worker, prophet from Galilee would bring 1500 years—well, by then 1800 years—of polytheistic civilisation to an end.
That was controversial by anyone’s standards.
The Greeks sniggered at the exotic notion of a resurrection of the dead—and, of course, Jews in the city must have thought that Paul was out of his mind.
But in all the fuss the central contention was missed—the prophetic insight that drove Paul’s mission. The religious order represented by the temples, shrines, and statues that lined the streets and overlooked the public spaces of Athens was passing away. The fabled world of classical paganism was rapidly becoming history.
Creation and history
So what we have here is a collision between a pagan civilisation in decline and a spirited eschatological movement out of Jerusalem, spearheaded by Paul, which proclaims, somewhat implausibly, that the God of Israel has appointed an executed Jew as judge and ruler of the nations of the ancient world.
It’s a collision that happens in history, under particular historical circumstances, with a before and an after. I don’t think that Luke meant his readers to take this as a reference to a final judgment of all humanity at the close of history. People imagine the world being turned upside down in Acts (Acts 17:6-7); no one thinks that it is coming to an end.
But, look, the collision takes place against the backdrop of what is, frankly, a rather enlightened statement about God and humanity—a general, theologically determined, but minimalist anthropology. People have been created by the God who is Lord of heaven and earth, who is both transcendent, irreducible to images of stone and wood, and the one in whom we live and move and have our being, as the poets say.
There is no fall in this narrative, no original sin, and no need for redemption—no one is suggesting that the Greek-speaking peoples should all become part of the greater commonwealth of Israel. But built into the anthropology is the assumption that humanity in its allotted historical periods and geographical spheres—that is, as societies and cultures and civilisations—would actively and deliberately seek God (Acts 17:26-27).
What we are presented with in Acts 17:16-31, therefore, is the failure of a particular society, demarcated in time and space as the ancient Greek-Roman world, to do just this, to seek the face of the living God.
This is the focal point, I think, for most of New Testament eschatology outside of the Gospels and the early chapters of Acts. The day fixed for judgment of the classical pagan world was the day of Christ’s parousia, when he would be revealed to the nations, when he would be confessed as Lord, when he would deliver his followers from their persecutors, when he would defeat such egregious opponents as the “man of lawlessness,” and when those who have died in Christ would be raised, vindicated, to reign with him throughout the coming ages.
Handed over to dishonourable passions and a debased mind
The argument that Paul put to the men of Athens is reproduced in greater detail in Romans 1:18-32.
The flip side to Paul’s gospel of salvation is the prospect of “wrath” against a society that has persistently suppressed the truth about the Creator (Rom. 1:1-4, 16-18). Looking ahead to the second chapter: the Greek who does good, who seeks after the living God, will receive glory, honour, peace, and life in the age to come; but for the Greek who is self-seeking and does not obey the truth, there will be wrath and fury, tribulation and distress (Rom. 2:6-11).
Although the “eternal power and divine nature” of God should have been evident from the things that have been made, people did not honour God, they became “vain in their thinking,” and they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23).
For that reason they were given over to two things—dishonourable passions and a debased mind. On the one hand, women and men engaged in same-sex sexual activity (Rom. 1:24-27). On the other, they were “filled with every injustice, evil, covetousness, vice” (Rom. 1:28-32*).
Now why does he highlight homosexual behaviour here? Why not heterosexual immorality—rape, prostitution, adultery? There was enough of it about. And why does it figure so prominently? Why does it come ahead of all other forms of wickedness—“envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness,” and so on.
The reason, I think, must be that he had in mind a pattern of social behaviour that characterised the alienation specifically of Greek culture from the living God.
The author of the Wisdom of Solomon said that the “invention of idols was the beginning of sexual immorality (porneia)” (Wis. 14:12). Paul probably wouldn’t have disputed that, but he sharpens the focus: the invention of idols in this case has produced a culture distinguished by the prominence and approval given to same-sex sexual relationships.
This is not a general or stock account of human sinfulness. It is not grounded in the creation story. It is a civilisation-level analysis, and it is likely, therefore, that at the forefront of Paul’s mind was the Greek practice of pederasty.
Largely confined to cultured homosocial elites, pederasty was a form of sexualised and romanticised mentorship. An unmarried young man in his twenties (the erastēs) would enter into a relationship with an adolescent male (the erōmenos), which would normally last until the erastēs got married. The younger man might then take on the role of the erastēs. Sometimes the relationship would endure into later life.
Greek public opinion was always in two minds about pederasty, as is clear from the lively debates over the relative merits of homosexual and heterosexual love that we find in Plato’s Symposium, Plutarch’s Amatorius, and Pseudo-Lucian’s Amores.
But arguably it was a way of formalising and disciplining sexual expression among young males when education and physical training happened over some years largely in the absence of women.
Certainly, it was defended, principally, on two grounds: first, that male love was superior to love of women, for the simple reason that the male was culturally and intellectually superior to the woman; secondly, that it prepared young men for public life. In the Symposium Socrates quotes the opinion of the wise woman Diotima that male love is superior because it gives birth not to physical children but to social virtues (Plato, Symposium 209).
The fact that homosexuality had become such a defining characteristic of Greek culture was, to Paul’s mind, a sign that God had abandoned this civilisation to the degrading and damaging consequences of its idolatry. It revealed God’s attitude towards the Greek world—that he had given up on it and sooner or later would “judge” it.
This does not mean that Paul disapproved only of pederasty or only of Greek homosexuality. But it is important to grasp the fact that, in the context of his mission to the Greek-Roman world, homosexuality, probably most saliently in the form of high status pederasty, was the hallmark of a civilisation under the wrath of God, with a day of judgment—an end—now fixed in the mind of God.
That is why he would not tolerate the presence of the arsenokoítai—men who lie with other men—in the churches (1 Cor. 6:9). The churches were to be a prophetic embodiment of what was to come, not of what was passing away. Under the peculiar and stressful conditions of eschatological transition, which incidentally is the context for the recommendation of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7, they were a sign of a radically different post-pagan future.
The synagogue communities had brought God’s name into disrepute among the nations. Paul’s intention, as a servant of the risen Lord, was to ensure that the churches constituted a plausible and transparent benchmark by which the pagan oikouménē would be judged.
The age after the age to come
So Paul’s categorical opposition to homosexuality belongs to a story that climaxes in the coming of the kingdom of God—as I see it, in the inauguration of the rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the ancient world.
This is how we reunite theology and history—by zipping together the apocalyptic and real futures of the New Testament.
The concrete social and political expression of that new order flourished—not always gloriously, it has to be said—for its allotted time, in its allotted space, as the large-scale enactment of a new narrative, a counter-narrative to Romans 1:18-32:
- a civilisation that would worship God alone, by whom all things were made, that would confess his Son as Lord, to whom all emperors and kings, all authorities and powers must bow;
- a civilisation that would elevate heterosexual marriage as the disciplining framework for sexuality and procreation, that would slowly consolidate a new ethics in its systems of governance and law—regrettably, to the cost of anyone who might happen to be innately same-sex attracted.
That social-political order, which we call Christendom, has now also been brought to an end. The age-to-come has gone, and an age after the age-to-come has established itself, grounded in two new absolutes—on the one hand, the progressive, self-correcting scientific account of reality, including human reality; on the other, a lively libertarianism expressed as the inalienable right of the individual to self-determine.
So two people of the same sex who desire each other may now marry, either because it is biologically natural for them to have that desire, or because they are free—legally and socially—to do what they desire.
The hard reality for the conservative church is that the social “problem” of homosexuality has been solved in the modern era by an appeal to scientific and moral reason: it is reasonable to think that some people are same-sex attracted; it is reasonable to allow people to choose to enter into a sexual relationship with a consenting adult person of the same sex.
It seems to me, therefore, that it is no longer possible for the church to oppose same-sex marriage, either for society at large, or for Christians. We do not have the same understanding of what is natural as first century Jews and Greeks. We are largely post-patriarchal in our assumptions—more so than the complementarians will admit. We mostly agree that people have the right to choose how they express their sexuality, as long as it doesn’t become an exercise of power over others. This is how things are in our world.
If history matters—and the Bible itself teaches us that it does—we must allow that our story is not Paul’s story, our future is not Paul’s future, our eschatology is not Paul’s eschatology.
So we have to find a constructive way to accommodate same-sex “marriage”—as the formalisation of an enduring, loving and faithful relationship between equals—within the life and witness of the church in this day and age. “Accommodate” is the operative word here: it does not abolish the undeniable tension, but it moves us forward.
The Areopagus model
Let’s consider, finally, how the Areopagus model might work today.
The post-Christian West, in its rather loosely determined allotted time and space, should be seeking the face of the living God as a core civilisational undertaking because the fact of creation is unalterable. The natural order still gestures mutely beyond itself to an engaged transcendence.
The modern West is no more interested in that pursuit than the ancient Greeks were, sadly; but from that initial rejection its narrative follows a very different course.
The trajectory could be plotted in a number of ways, but at the moment it appears that we need to draw a line from rejection of the God who created and blessed our planet and its fullness to a threatening global ecological emergency, passing through the abandonment—the handing over—of our world to a runaway materialism along the way. What the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted are the deep, age-old systemic injustices built into the secular-materialist programme.
In any case, the problem of same-sex relationships barely registers in this eschatology. It is no longer the hallmark of civilisational decadence. The problem has been solved.
What can we draw from the model regarding the task of the church in the West today? I suggest that, in general terms, there are two things that the church must do.
First, the church should cooperate with the enlightened theological anthropology which, according to Luke, constituted the ground of Paul’s proclamation in Athens, but which modern evangelical theologies have mostly disregarded. The church must do its best to bring to light, bring to speech, bring to action the suppressed impulse to seek the creator God, as it emerges in our own allotted time and space.
That means, I think, that the church must first exist as a credible alternative reality, fragmented, dispersed, microcosmic—as priestly communities that embody the presence of the living God. We give a name, a voice, passion and intelligence, a story to that engaged transcendence, in humility, by grace only, under the severe constraints of our weakness and sinfulness.
It means that we clear the pathways that already run through the culture, uncover overgrown signposts, restore defaced milestones, repair bridges, outline itineraries, tell stories, to facilitate the entirely natural, instinctive human endeavour of feeling our way towards God, who is the ground of our being.
And since we now accept—we now have to accept—an anthropology that validates same-sex marriage as a social good, I suggest that in the eschatological narrative, stable, faithful, loving same-sex marriages between believers, assimilated into the priestly communities, are a desirable metric in the benchmark of “righteousness” by which the living God will judge the modern age.
And that brings me to the second task.
The synagogue communities of the diaspora should have been guides to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, instructors of the foolish, teachers of children, “having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and truth,” as Paul says in Romans (Rom. 2:19–20).
In his judgment they had failed in that task and would be replaced by novel communities of Jews and Gentiles obedient to Jesus as Lord. But the missional principle is clear in that statement. God’s priestly people, scattered among the nations, should facilitate a civilisation’s seeking after God.
But the Areopagus analysis also compels us to ask whether again God is no longer willing to overlook the centuries of “ignorance,” going all the way back to the founding error, the original sin, of our exploitative materialist civilisation—whether again his patience has not at last run out.
When and how he will judge our world remains to be seen. Perhaps not by the risen Lord this time. Perhaps by the sun and the skies and the deserts and the seas. Or perhaps we must, after all, envisage a cosmic Christ.