In Romans 1, the Apostle Paul mentions male and female behavior that he expects his readers to disapprove. But what was the sin he was ranting about? Read the whole passage and track it back. In Romans 1, Paul ridicules Gentile religious rebellion in typical Jewish polemic saying that they knew God but worshiped idols instead of God. Paul knew the Mediterranean world well and knew exactly what he was doing in selecting this illustration for his ridiculing of idolatry.
As we know, Paul’s journeys along the travel routes of the eastern Mediterranean world brought him into direct contact with many varieties of Gentile paganism and their cults. Writing on “The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Catherine Kroeger, New Testament scholar, noted expert on Ancient Greek culture, and professor of classical and ministry studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary from 1990 until her death in February 2011, made the following comments about “the deliberate sex reversal practiced in some of the pagan cults.” She said:
“Sex reversal was a specific distinctive of the Dionysiac cult and by the second century A.D. was considered to be indispensable to the religion. Men wore veils and long hair as signs of their dedication to the god, while women used the unveiling and shorn hair to indicate their devotion. Men masqueraded as women, and in a rare vase painting from Corinth a woman is dressed in satyr pants equipped with the male organ. Thus she dances before Dionysus, a deity who had been raised as a girl and was himself called male-female and ‘sham-man.’”
Kroeger goes on to say:
“The sex exchange that characterized the cults of such great goddesses as Cybele, the Syrian goddess, and Artemis of Ephesus was more grisly. Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments. A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress. He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.”
We know from a myriad of credible sources that cult prostitution was associated with the Temple of Aphrodite in the high hill above Corinth. Corinth, of course, was precisely where Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. Aphrodite was another name for Cybele. B.Z. Goldberg, author of the four-volume “Sacred Fire: The Story of Sex in Religion,” says the following of Aphrodite:
“She is both male and female — a bearded face with full maiden breasts… They who come to worship her must hide their sex. Males come in the female attire and females in the clothes of males. The greatest glory they can bring to Aphrodite … is to physically efface their sex.”
Whether worshipers called her Aphrodite, Cybele, Astarte, or Ishtar, they practiced erotic flagellations, same-sex orgies, and climaxing castration rites in her temples all along the sea coasts of Paul’s missionary journeys. Goldberg gives quite a colorful description of the rites of Aphrodite:
“When the human being reaches the stage in which he is neither man nor woman, then he is closest in tune with the spirit of the great goddess of love.”
Meanwhile, Attis, Aphrodite’s son and sometime consort, was said to have castrated himself and committed suicide. Goldberg describes the rituals of his young priests. At the beginning of the “erotic blood-letting” rites, one of the young priests resembling Attis or Adonis would be found stabbed to death. He says:
“The sight of the dead priest … aroused others to give of their own life fluid for the sake of the son of their goddess. The high-priest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. And the inferior priests, wrought to the height of passion by the wild, barbaric music of cymbal, drum, and flute and by the profusion of blood around them, whirled about in furious dance. Finally, overcome by excitement, frenzied, and insensible to pain, they savagely thrust the knives into their bodies, gashing themselves in violence to bespatter the altar with their spurting blood.”
“The frenzy and hysteria of the priests spread to the worshipers, and many a would-be priest fell into the wave of religious excitement. He sacrificed his virility to the goddess, dashing the severed portions of himself against her blood-besmeared statue. … With throbbing veins and burning eyes, they flung their garments from them and with wild shouts seized the knives of the priests to castrate themselves upon the very spot. Then, insensible to pain and oblivious of everything, they ran through the streets of the Sacred Ring, waving the bloody pieces and finally throwing them into a house they passed. It became the duty of the households thus honored to furnish these men with female clothes, and they, made eunuchs in the heat of religious passion, were to serve their goddess for the rest of their lives.”
The priest … who castrated himself in religious frenzy assumed feminine dress not without purpose. He continued in the service of the temple and like the priestesses served man for the required fee. They were male priests serving males in the temples of all the gods.”
Doesn’t all this sound like what Paul had in mind in the beginning of his letter to the Romans with an attack on pagan idolatry when he wrote:
“Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty [e.g., castration] for their perversion.” (Romans 1:27)
Doesn’t this better describe these pagan cultic rites of Paul’s day than it does the mutual love and support in the everyday domestic life of committed gay Christian couples today? At any rate, even in this illustration, whether of these repulsive cultic rites of the pagan temples or, if you insist, homosexuality as such, we must be careful to note that Paul was just setting up his self-righteous readers for his theological kill that comes at the beginning of the next chapter:
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)
Paul wants us all to know we are not to condemn each other. We are all guilty of doing the same things we accuse others of doing, says Paul. But Paul’s great message of Romans is grace. Grace in exchange for guilt. Grace for living graciously with everyone else. Grace to live the Golden Rule. Grace to love others as we love ourselves.
But do we really grasp this grace when we try to dump ancient texts about gang rape, pagan prostitution and idolatry onto the heads of our gay brethren? If you were gay, would you want them dumped onto you? The clear commandment is this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Clearly, there’s a very wide spectrum of human experience between the extreme situation Paul describes in Romans 1 depicting those who’ve turned their backs on God and resort to a depraved lifestyle, and those at the other end of the spectrum, who have turned to God and seek after Him with all their heart. Those Paul speaks of had refused to acknowledge and worship God and for this reason were abandoned by God to their lustful depravity. The Christian gay people I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and thank Him for his grace and His gifts. How then could they have been abandoned to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God? Those Paul speaks of were constantly lusting after each other and in their actions were only following their lusts. The Christian gay people I know don’t lust after each other anymore than heterosexual people lust after each other. They seek abiding personal companionship, enduring love, shared intimacy and complete trust from each other just as heterosexual people, at their best, do.
Paul’s point is not about homosexuality, but idolatry, worshiping false gods. Paul is talking about idolatrous people engaged in prostitution. He is talking about temple idolatry and cultic rites that were marked by gruesome sex exchanges. It is hardly fair to apply his judgment on them to Christian gay and lesbian people who are not idolaters and no more lustful than anyone else.
Those who insist that our gay brothers and sisters in the church are conspicuously ungrateful to God, foolish, futile, impure or debased, or that they are uniquely prone to the sins that Paul describes here have simply not bothered to get to know their fellow Christians. That’s lazy on two counts: exegetical and communal. It’s a claim that barely deserves a hearing.