Paul and the Question of Sexual Orientation: A Story and Reflection

Below you will find a link to a piece I wrote in that most obscure of academic genres: the response to a response to an article. For those who haven’t been following developments here in Australia, the issue of Marriage Equality is on the political agenda, but via the deeply unsatisfactory medium of a proposed postal survey to secure a clear sense of the opinions of all Australians. This has led to some more, and much more less helpful public debate about marriage, same-sex relationships, homosexuality and, for that small portion of the Australian population who give two hoots about it, the Bible.

My colleague Robyn Whitaker composed a brief article on the Bible and same-sex relations. In the process, she asked me for a quotation that she could use in summarising my view of one of the relevant texts: Romans 1:28–28. This is what I said:

“Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation.”

The article, originally written for The Conversation, was then syndicated by the ABC and so received substantial circulation. In response to the article as a whole, and especially to the claim made by Whitaker and supported by me, that Romans 1 is not really about orientation, Lionel Windsor composed a response piece (theoretically directed at articles by Whitaker and Amy Jill Levine, but really focused almost exclusively on the former) pointing out that Bill Loader’s recent and well-received work on Romans 1 argues that Paul did understand that there could be something akin to sexual orientation, and that he condemned it anyway. In the ABC version of that piece my quotation wasn’t mentioned, although I now note that my initial hunch as to why is confirmed by the original version of Windsor’s article on the ‘Thinking of God’ website. Windsor goes on to consider the way in which his account of Paul’s gospel makes sense of Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 1.

My response can be found here. It isn’t the easiest read, perhaps, if the nuances of the debate aren’t familiar to you. But the intention was to challenge to some extent Windsor’s reading of Loader, and offer an alternative account of the way that we connect Paul’s theology (his ‘big idea’) to his ethics.

A couple of things have occurred to me in the process of stepping into this debate:

The first is that I have yet to receive a single challenging, questioning, accusatory, or intemperate email about what I wrote; in contrast to Whitaker, whose position on the biblical texts I explicitly support. Within a day of her article appearing she received numerous emails questioning not only her views, but her authority to express them, and the validity of her Christian faith and academic credentials. Of course it may simply be that my persuasive skills are such that those who have told Robyn she is going to hell have all changed their minds and will be voting ‘Yes’ in the forthcoming survey. But somehow I doubt it. It could simply be that my article has dropped into the abyss of online comment on this issue and that very few people have read it. But there are other possible explanations. The first is the likelihood that as a middle aged, cis-gendered, white, straight male I am benefitting from all of the unspoken forms of insulation and protection that are afforded me. Certainly at least one person has taken the time to wrte to Robyn and attack her for what is stated in the quotation from me.

The second possible explanation is that, in composing a slightly technical response to a response to an article, I left my own position on the issue unclear. So let me be clear, for what it is worth. I support the position that has been carefully articulated by others: by Robyn, by Bill Loader himself (whose work, like Robyn’s, is marked by the admirable qualities of exegetical care and hermeneutical honesty); by my own Pastor Simon Holt. I am not an Australian citizen, but if I were I would be voting ‘Yes’ in the forthcoming survey. I support a change in the legislation to enable marriage between people of the same sex, and I see no biblical or theological warrant for denying its legitimacy.