How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Homosexuality, Black Friday, and the disordered human condition

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In his chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the New Testament Richard Hays argues that in Romans 1:

Paul is offering a diagnosis of the disordered human condition: he adduces the fact of widespread homosexual behaviour as evidence that human beings are indeed in rebellion against their Creator. The fundamental human sin is the refusal to honor God and give God thanks (1:21); consequently, God’s wrath takes the form of letting human idolatry run its own self-destructive course. Homosexual activity, then, is not a provocation of ‘the wrath of God’ (Rom 1.18); rather, it is a consequence of God’s decision to ‘give up’ rebellious creatures to follow their own futile thinking and desires. The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin. (387)

Now, doesn’t that definition of “humanity” as “Jews and Greeks alike” strike you as odd? If Paul is offering a “diagnosis of the disordered human condition” or, as Ian Paul puts it in the Grove booklet on Same-Sex Unions, “telling the cosmic history of the failure of humanity” (24), why does Paul speak specifically of the coming wrath against the Greek (Rom. 2:9)?

I suppose Hays would argue that Paul took classical pagan idolatry and its ethical consequences to be representative of the human condition. But that’s just an assumption, and it’s not a very good one—see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom for more.

The church cannot afford to keep forcing its ethical analysis through the antiquated grid of Romans 1.

The arena of divine action, the eschatological field of play, presupposed everywhere in the New Testament is the Greek-Roman world: from Caesar’s decree that the whole oikoumenē should be registered (Lk. 2:1), to Paul’s determination to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ lordship from Jerusalem via Illyricum and Rome to Spain (Rom. 15:19, 24), to his announcement in Athens that the God of Israel has fixed a day when he will judge the oikoumenē (Acts 17:31), to the climactic proclamation of judgment on Babylon the great, which is Rome (Rev. 18).

Wrath came against the Greek world, the old idolatrous culture was judged by the man whom YHWH had appointed, the great pagan powers fell, the philosophers were co-opted; and for 1500 years or so the nations of the oikoumenē honoured the Creator, after a fashion.

Then, with the European Enlightenment, a new anti-theism arose, and again the oikoumenē turned its back on the Creator. But it did not exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). It exchanged the glory of God for the glory of humanity. It stopped serving the Creator and instead pursued human self-interest by all means available, for better or for worse.

These are different narratives, following different pathways, towards different historical outcomes. We can, if we wish, make pagan idolatry a metaphor for the modern secular repudiation of the Creator, but we should not pretend that they are the same thing simply to save the superficial relevance of scripture.

Romans 1:18-32 is an accurate biblical-Jewish diagnosis of the corruption of ancient pagan society, and it is indispensable for how we tell our story. But it would be, in effect, a serious misdiagnosis of the corruption of modern secular society. Sexual depravity may well have been the defining characteristic of a pagan culture that so deeply offended Jewish sensibilities, but that is hardly the case today.

The church cannot afford to keep forcing its ethical analysis through the antiquated grid of Romans 1. We have to undertake our own prophetic diagnosis, we have to tell our own story.

Undoubtedly, the refusal of secular societies to worship the Creator is the starting point and, of course, sexual “impurity”—however we may understand that—remains a problem.

But surely it is rational, technologically advanced, unrestrained, globalised materialism that constitutes the fundamental modern offence against the Creator. Not sex.

It arises from the same place, but the sort of permissive wrath of God that Paul describes runs down historical and civilisational channels.

In the modern era it is the material world that is being so devastatingly dishonoured. It is our rampant, unthinking, everyday consumerism that embodies the offence in concrete personal actions—and for which, perhaps, we will receive the “due penalty” for our error (cf. Rom. 1:27).

And as Paul so scathingly noted in Romans 1-2, the people of God shares in the disorder of the prevailing culture and is complicit in the offence. Black Friday is not a good Friday.

Andrew, you know how much I hate to critique you on your own blog, but our modern version of rebellion against God -can’t- be rampant consumerism, pulling the levers of economic power, or abuse of the environment for mercantile interests because the Church participates and often fights for all those things.

I mean, come on — if you were correct, it would imply that there is a serious danger that the Church would assimilate into a prevailing culture that wanted nothing to do with God. And well, heh heh, we know THAT is never… um… wait a minute…

Sorry for the double comment.

Do you think the current obsession conservative evangelicalism has with homosexuality is a defense mechanism? As in, it allows for a public condemnation of “sin” without actually examining the roots of rebellion in our own hearts that we’re actually sympathetic with?

Comments are free.

You’re probably in a better place to answer that question than I am. I suspect it’s much more a boundary issue—not so much the boundary of the church, though, as the boundary between the past and the future. This is not an argument for affirming gay marriage, but I would say that the conservative church is digging its heels in because it is afraid of being dragged into a future that it can’t handle.

I was wondering the same, but wonder whether the western evangelical church is sufficiently self aware? No doubt in my mind that years (centuries) of theological and moral conditioning play a huge part. But attitudes do shift and change. I am old enough to remember other very real taboos in my early Christian experience that are now no longer a matter of real concern to most believers. People apparently can be passionate followers of Jesus and get divorced and remarried; believers can drink, smoke and swear etc. Go back just a few hundred years (Tudor times for example) and we’d find it hard to recognise some of the attitudes, fears and superstitions of the church and its adherents. Some would asset that homosexually is on a whole different level, but I suspect in years to come many churches will become far more tolerant and ‘theologies’ will continue to shift.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 11/21/2016 - 18:26 | Permalink

I’d go for your interpretation of Romans 1:18, 26-31 etc in my current frame of mind: ie look at the historical context of the passage rather than universalize it. I think the contrast of the narratives you provide makes a fair point, though some would say the result is the same as regards sexual immorality and “homosexual activity”.

I’m just fascinated by what Richard Hays says in another part of the extract you quote. If homosexual activity is, as he says, “a consequence of God’s decision to ‘give up’ rebellious creatures to follow their own futile thinking and desires”, how is it that children of Christian, believing parents, some of whom (in my own church) have gone on to be believers themselves, have also found themselves to be same sex attracted? I would say that some of them are also role model believers.

I note too that Hays broadens the scope of “homosexual activity” to include “thinking and desires” without batting an eyelid.

So I’m talking about c. 4%-5% of the total number of young people that I know about in the church (my own) for this period. Maybe my church is a hotbed of this sort of thing. They have received no support, as their orientation was hidden while they were in the church. (Adult same sex believers seem to have steered well clear of the church).

I can only conclude that Richard Hays, living in his academic ivory tower, is out of touch with reality in the church (and society) and doesn’t know what he is talking about. A conclusion I have come to about many, if not most commentators on the subject in the church, my own included.

I can’t help also observing that Hays passes over what to me is a novel definition of “the wrath of God” without a whisper. He says (and so do others, actually) that “homosexual activity” is not a provocation but a consequence of the wrath of God. That is very easily and rather cleverly said, but isn’t it a very new way of describing biblical “wrath”, as the reprobate symptoms of a sick society rather than God’s final destruction of that society? Doesn’t this deserve some more comment? Also that Paul only uses “the wrath of God” in Romans in 1:18. Elsewhere it is “the wrath”, which includes the execution of justice in the Roman Empire which Paul commends.

As for the logic of applying all this to today, go back to my second paragraph, if you dare.

Craig | Tue, 11/22/2016 - 16:46 | Permalink

I’m not so sure that the technological revolution you point to working itself out economically in multi-national global capitalism isn’t the same technological revolution working itself out sexually. In both cases a technological worldview seeks to overcome any and all limits of a ‘nature’ redefined entirely in immanent terms. Micheal Hanby has explored this link in the talk he gave, “Technocracy and the Future of Christian Freedom” (…) He’s not the first, others have seen the negative results of a technological worldview — Heidegger in his ‘Essays on Technology’, Jaques Ellul in his ‘The Technological Society’, and C.S. Lewis in his ‘Abolition of Man’ and ‘That Hideous Strength’ — though not always so clearly in terms of sexuality. Perhaps the difference between ancient idolary and enlightenment idolatry is more of form and less of substance? In both cases disordered loves work themselves out economically, socially, sexually, and politically. I appreciate your point to be attentive hermeneutically to the differences and I would substantially agree that a myoptic focus on sex in Roman 1 can blind us to the way idolatry works itself out in economic terms, but I’m not sure its an either/or between sex and economics but more of a both/and. 

In both cases a technological worldview seeks to overcome any and all limits of a ‘nature’ redefined entirely in immanent terms.

I would have thought that in the case of homosexuality, rationalism (or whatever we call it) would see it not so much as overcoming any and all limits of human nature as removing unnecessary and unreasonable constraints on human nature. It’s about letting gay people be gay people without labelling them as “sinners” and driving them to the dark side.

I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that scripture condemns same-sex relations exclusively as an aspect of pagan idolatry, but for Paul the departure from “natural” sexual behaviour appears to be the leading outcome of the repudiation of the creator. I don’t think we can say that today.

Undoubtedly, sexuality is affected by, implicated in, the technological worldview, but it’s not something new. It preceded the enlightenment. It’s not so obvious that we can say that because modern humans worship machines and consumer goods, God has given them up “in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”.

In both cases disordered loves work themselves out economically, socially, sexually, and politically.

But here, I think, you have subtly prioritised “disordered loves”. That begs the question. My argument is that in the modern analysis we shouldn’t be prioritising sexuality in the way that Paul does, though we may want to show how the technological worldview has impacted relationships and sexuality, along with a whole lot of other things.