Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Biblical Arguments 2

I meant to write this yesterday but got caught up in other things. It's a follow up to the previous day's post on this seemingly imminent split in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality. Last post, I talked about the Old Testament arguments. Today, I said I'd talk about the New Testament, which means almost exclusively Paul. There's only one other passage that could be vaguely related to the topic, and that is in that single-chapter epistle Jude. "In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion." (verse 7). As we discussed earlier, the sexual immorality and perversion of Sodom and Gomorrah related to rape and inhospitality.

Which leaves us with Paul.

In the spirit of self-disclosure, I say up front I'm not a big fan of Paul. I realize many Christians think he is the best part of the bible – I even had an evangelical author tell me that he only quoted Paul – never Jesus – because his words were more accurate than the words the evangelists quoted Jesus as saying. The title of his book: Classic Christianity.

I have read Paul for years and will admit that he gets a lot right. But he is not Jesus, is not perfect and must not be taken as word-for-word divine. That would be blasphemy. Remember, the Word is not a book but a person, Jesus Christ. Listen to Him.

Besides, Paul is all too human in other ways: he's arrogant, pig-headed, and self-promoting for starters. In his opinion, only he has it right, and if anyone else ever disagrees with him – the other apostles for example – they are always wrong. As far as I can tell, the only reason Paul is taken so seriously is because he was not only a busy missionary but a furious letter writer. He wrote passionately and prolifically, which are two ingredients to promoting yourself.

So, we begin by admitting that regardless of what Paul says, it is not necessary to take it as divine law. What Jesus says is far more important. Having said that, let's look at the three big passages in Paul. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul discusses "male prostitutes and sodomites." The Greek words for these are malakoi and arsenokoitai, and they refer to a situation not really practiced in our society anymore. (in 1 Timothy, Paul uses the same word – arsenokoitai – in his condemnation, so the same rules apply). In Corinth, as in other places of the time, it was not uncommon for heterosexual men, often married, to keep on the side young boys (malakoi as many scholars assert) to fulfill their sexual desires. When they did this, the men were arsenokoitai. As I say, it was a pretty normal practice. The boys were often slaves who had no choice – or they were paid prostitutes. Paul would rightly condemn this practice.

Biblical scholars, however, argue about the word malakoi. In the common usage of the day, it referred to "soft" and could mean the texture of cloth or a person who was cowardly, or lazy, or a "dandy" – that is one who primped and who liked to woo the ladies. In other words, the very words are difficult to define, so we are ill-advised to read something written so long ago say with such certainty exactly what it means.

Yet, he himself seems to sin by then condemning them: he says, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor 6:9-10) It is Christ who is the judge, not Paul (a fact he seems to forget quite often), and it is for Christ to determine who will enter heaven and who will not.

If you are a strict Pauline devotee, however, be careful. Paul does not limit his condemnation to sexual issues. Alcoholics are clearly headed for hell as are the greedy – and that would cover a large percentage of the population.

The other two Pauline passages are not easy to gloss over, except to say in all his writings, there are only these two more. And yet in Romans 1:26-27 when Paul condemns men who "committed indecent acts with other men," there is a long and strong argument that Paul's primary focus is pagan cult worship and cult prostitution.

A lot of people would argue with these interpretations, yet scholars can provide just as good arguments for this reasoning as anything, so for those who are adamant that their way is the only way, I say hogwash. Not that I think Paul thought too positively about homosexuality. There's every reason to believe he did not think such a thing as we commonly call it even existed – for him it was cult practice or abuse of a weaker person or selling one's body. These, by the way, are things that most gays I know would condemn as well.