The Bible doesn’t always say what we want it to say. Here’s an example of a passage that doesn’t exactly fit into the modern way of thinking - “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual 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 shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26:27).
We may read all that Paul says in Romans 1 and ask, “Why did Paul not restrict himself to speaking in general terms about “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18)? Why did he go on to make these very specific references to same-sex relations?” We may think, “If he hadn’t gone on to make these statements about same-sex relations, we could more easily move into the “open mind” that modern society is calling us to adopt.”
“If he hadn’t said these things, what would we say about same-sex relations?” That’s a hypothetical question. He did say these things. Before we rush to saying, “I disagree with him”, we must ask some very important questions, “Why did he say these things? What are we saying when we say that we disagree with him?”
Did Paul say things that he should have left unsaid? or Was he speaking the Word of God?
What are to do with Paul’s words?
Some people ignore his words – but they won’t go away. They’re in the Bible – whether we like it or not.
Some people reinterpret his words. There is a problem with reinterpreting Romans 1:26-27. The reinterpretation is saying one thing. Paul is saying something else. If we are to put words into Paul’s mouth – words that lead in a very different direction from what he has written, what are to say about the “It is written” principle (Matthew 4:4,7,10)?
In the contemporary debate about same-sex relations, we may seek earnestly to reach agreement and achieve co-operation. This is not easy. We long for a deeper experience of unity in Christ – “How good and pleasant when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
We don’t want to see division among God’s people. When we are deeply divided, we are very conscious that we fall far short of the ideal set for us by Paul: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
It’s not only Paul who asks us, “Why are you so divided?” God asks us, “Why are you so divided?”
How do we respond to this important question? Are we to be content with a “lowest common denominator” unity – keeping the peace at all costs, unity at the expense of truth and holiness?
“Why are you so divided?”
Can we really answer this question if we ignore the warning issued by Paul in Romans 16:17 – Divisions are caused by those who come with a message that is “contrary to the teaching you have learned.”
Paul’s insistence on the “according to the Scriptures” principle is not something we should treat lightly. Can we really say that we agree with Paul when he said, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” – and then reserve the right to disagree with him when we don’t like what he has written?
When we focus attention on Paul’s words, there are some who tell us that we should be focusing on Jesus rather than Paul. They also point out that we have no record of Jesus ever saying anything about same-sex relations.
What do we achieve when we set Jesus against Paul? – Nothing! We are still left with Jesus saying things like this: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4); “Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
Some suggest that we should emphasize Christ, the living Word of God, at the expense of the Bible, the written Word of God.
How helpful is this when Jesus places such a strong emphasis on building our faith and life on God’s written Word?
Some point us to Paul’s words, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), suggesting that we should place less emphasis on the Word and more emphasis on the Spirit.
How helpful is this in view of Paul’s emphasis on both the Spirit - “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) - and the Word – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16)? In Paul’s emphasis on both the Word and the Spirit, we hear an echo of Jesus’ teaching – “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
When people attempt to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul, we must ask them to take a closer look at what Scripture tells us about both of them. When, for example, we read Paul’s letters and we find something we don’t like, are we at liberty to dismiss what he says with the contemptuous remark, “That’s just Paul”?
Paul is not our Saviour. We dare not exalt him too highly. He is, however, “a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Is this a man about whom we dare say, “That’s just Paul”?
Whatever we may say about the interpretation of passages from Leviticus, dare we dismiss the words of Paul in Romans 1:26-27?
Before we dismiss his words as “not entering into the substance of the faith” we should note that his words come from the letter which contains such great verses as these: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8); “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23); Nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39); “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Paul’s extremely strong words about same-sex relations come from the same chapter which contains these great words: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
As we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its “great verses”, dare we dismiss (or correct) his words about same-sex relations without asking the question, “What gives us the right to dip into Romans, rejoicing in its great verses, while we ignore the verses where he says something that’s not going to be well received in today’s world?”
Some people tell us that the problem with Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 is that he speaks so strongly about holiness without saying so much about love. This isn’t an accurate description of what Paul says in Romans 1. If we want to hear all about love and nothing about holiness, we will never be anything but extremely uncomfortable in the company of Paul. He speaks about “salvation” – but it is very important that we recognize that he highlights the greatness of salvation by speaking to us very directly about the greatness of our sin from which we are delivered by “the power of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16).
When we hear the criticism of Paul - “too much about holiness, not enough about love”, we ask, “Are things any different when we look at Jesus?”
Some people like to think that Jesus is all about love – love, love, love, wherever you look there is love. Yes! There is love –but there is also holiness. We see this in the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12).
Before we look at what this story teaches us, it should be pointed that we have no record that Jesus ever spoke about same-sex relations. That’s not to say that He never spoke about this at all. He could have – but we have no mention of this in the Gospels. Even if Jesus never spoke about same-sex relations, we should not assume that He would have disagreed with what Paul wrote in Romans 1:26-27.
In my own ministry, dating back to my ordination in 1980, I don’t recall ever speaking about same-sex relations until the first Sunday after the General Assembly of 2009. What can you infer from the fact that I never preached on this subject until 2009 – a lot longer period of time than Jesus’ three-year ministry? Nothing! – I said nothing until the time when I felt it was the right time to say something.