St. Paul’s letters provide us with the only authentic eye-witness record of the first generation of Christians. In contrast with the ideal picture presented in the book of Acts, Paul’s letters reveal a Christian movement that was in turmoil, and in which there was a moral crisis. Paul repeatedly warned his readers against factious disputes, drunkenness, fornication and homosexuality (1 Cor. 1:10–11, 5:1–5, 6:9f. Gal. 5:19f.). In one passage Paul reproaches his readers:
“Sober up to righteousness and stop sinning, for not all have the knowledge of God (agnosian). I speak this to your shame.” (1 Cor. 15:34)
The passage above is an example of a peculiar duality that is found throughout Paul’s doctrine and ethic. This is summed up in the basic concepts of “faith” and “knowledge” (gnosis) that appear in Paul’s letters. Faith refers to the concept of justification by faith (Gal. 2:16) whereas “knowledge” refers to liberty from the Law of Moses (1 Cor. 8:9–10). In Paul’s letters there is this precarious balance between the two, between the piety that comes through faith, and the liberty that comes through knowledge. For this reason we can find Paul making some very strange statements in which there is a dual message. An example is where the Apostle warns against fornication and homosexuality:
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals…(etc.) shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9f.)
Paul’s message here seems to be clear enough. But the problem is that he does not stop here. Instead he goes on to qualify himself:
“All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” (1 Cor. 6:12)
Why does Paul qualify himself here? What is the point? Inevitably we must conclude that Paul does not regard the sexual act itself as “unlawful.” What Paul considers to be unlawful, or sinful, is when someone becomes a slave to sexual desire, but not because of the sexual act itself. Certainly Paul has created a loophole in the moral code of the early church, and this controversy is reflected in his letters, and in the later Christian/Gnostic movement . The problem here is that Paul does not actually make plain that “fornication” and “homosexuality” are sinful in and of themselves. His words are open to interpretation.
Paul’s concept of knowledge and liberation is described most clearly in 1 Corinthians 8. Here Paul informs his readers that Christians who have “gnosis” are free to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:9–10). Paul’s only concern is that this is not done in front of those brothers who are “weak” and who lack “gnosis” (1 Cor. 8:7). Partaking of idol meats is forbidden in the Law of Moses, and in Acts 15:29 the Apostles at Jerusalem prohibit the practice among gentile Christians. Yet Paul resists, and he asserts once again, regarding this matter, that “All things are lawful” and that Christians should buy their meat from the market, asking no questions (1 Cor. 10:23, 25). Here again, the underlying principle in Paul’s statements is that Christians who have “gnosis” are liberated from the Law of Moses. In Paul’s letters this underlying concept has implications in every aspect of Christian/Gnostic life.
The implications of this liberation can be seen in the passage below from Galatians 3:28. In this passage Paul informs the Christians of Galatia that salvation is achieved through grace alone, and they must not observe the Mosaic Law, or else they will inherit the curse (Gal. 3:10–13). In this context Paul informed the Galatians that a new age was beginning in Christ, and that for Christians the Law of Moses was no longer binding. Paul therefore informed his readers that in Christ:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
Paul is not simply referring here to a state equality among Christians. Paul refers to the passing away of the old testament and the old social order that was established under the Law of Moses, where Hebrews were divided from gentiles, and men separated from women, and women subservient to men bound in marriage, and also the biblical laws distinguishing free men and slaves (Dt. 7:6, Gen. 2:24, 3:16, Lev. 25:39ff.). For Paul, the Christian church is the harbinger of a new spiritual order that will overtake the world with the arrival of the kingdom of God.
Paul’s concept of liberation from the Law is an idea that is traceable to Jewish tradition. Among Jews, or certain Jews as the case may be, there was this idea that once the Messianic Age arrived, that the Law of Moses would no longer be in force. The scholar Hans-Joachim Schoeps documents the history of this idea in Judaism (Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History, pg. 171f.). The reason that Paul fell out with his fellow Jews is that he introduced the idea, unique to his version of the gospel, that the Law of Moses ceased with the resurrection of Jesus, and that all Christians were released from the Law. On this point Paul was in conflict with both Jews and Christians alike (see below).
This concept of liberation is also found in other New Testament books aside from Paul. In the Gospel of Matthew this concept is mentioned in two notable passages. In Matthew 22 Jesus cites this doctrine in his answer to the Sadducees regarding a wife with multiple deceased husbands: hence which man will she be married to in the kingdom? Jesus answers that “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” (Mt. 22:30)
And in Matthew 5 the following warning is attributed to Jesus–probably against the followers of Paul–regarding those who teach that the Law will pass before the kingdom arrives:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the Law… For truly I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, not the smallest letter or stroke will pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great…” (Mt. 5:17–19)
In comparison to the above passage let’s now note the proclamations of Paul on the same issue:
“Therefore by the deeds of the Law shall no flesh be justified…” (Rom. 3:20)
And also, regarding circumcision:
“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law, ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:3–4)
And again, regarding the Sabbath:
“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:5)
Indeed this concept of liberation from the Law is alluded to both in Paul’s letters and in Matthew. Most interesting however is that Paul and “Matthew” actually oppose each other on the issue. The “Jesus” of Matthew commands his followers to observe all of the law, not withstanding the smallest “letter” or “stroke”; whereas Paul teaches the opposite. In Matthew 19:16–17 Jesus tells the young aristocrat that in order to have “eternal life” that he must “keep the commandments.” But again Paul taught the opposite, as documented above; and in 2 Corinthians 3:6–7 Paul refers to the Law of Moses as the “ministry of death.” In these conflicting passages we can see that the earliest Christians were deeply divided, and that the “Jesus” of Paul and the “Jesus” of Matthew are irreconcilable in terms of the concept of redemption. Thus in Paul’s letters “Jesus” saves man from the Law; whereas in Matthew “Jesus” saves man through the Law. These two concepts of redemption are irreconcilable–and represent the teachings of two opposing Christian factions.
My point overall is that Paul does not refer to some abstract or mystical concept of unity and equality in Galatians 3:28. Paul refers to a new social order, and a new ethic, which has already begun among Christians, and which will soon overtake the world in the coming Messianic age. This is why Paul argues against the practice of circumcision (Gal. 5:4), and is not concerned with prohibitions against eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8:9–11), and is not concerned about which day Christians should rest, or even if they bother to observe any Sabbath at all (Rom. 14:5). In other parts of the New Testament “Jesus” censures those who cease from observing the law before the end of the age is fulfilled (Mt. 5:17–19).
But again there remains the question as to what type of ethic that Paul and his followers were to live by. Some of my readers will point out to me that “Paul” specifically instructed his followers to adhere to the institution of marriage rather than indulge in fornication (1 Cor. 7:2). But I raise the question of the context of Paul’s statements. Did Paul prescribe marriage as the ideal arrangement? Or did Paul prescribe marriage for those who could not gain mastery over their desires? Because, repeatedly, in Paul’s instruction, and in his warnings on fornication and homosexuality, he qualifies himself: “All things are lawful for me. But I will not be brought under the power of any.” (1 Cor. 6:12, 10:23) Again, the implication here is that Paul does not regard the sexual act itself as evil. What he regards as evil are those who are slaves to sexual desire.
Overall I find the preceding statement inconsistent with one who is out to eradicate unconventional ethics among his followers. Why remind them that “All things are lawful”? I also urge my readers to bear in mind that Paul’s writings have been bequeathed to us in a heavily reworked and redacted form. And in this we can see inconsistent elements in “Paul’s” teaching and admonitions on the issues of ethics and morality. It’s entirely possible in my view that some of the harshest statements against homosexuality or fornication are actually from another writer or editor.
I documented in my article Was Paul a Misogynist? that the letter of 1 Corinthians alone is comprised of more than one letter. For example, in 1 Corinthians Paul can be shown have both allowed and prohibited women from prophesying in the church (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:5 & 14:34). I mention this because I want my readers to be aware of the fact that the Pauline letters are not purely Pauline. And here again in 1 Corinthians 6:9–12 Paul condemns sex outside of marriage, and gay sex, and yet bothers to remind his readers that “All things are lawful.” Something does not add up here. But I do accept Paul at his word that the body and spirit are meant for God, not sex. I do believe that Paul did not want people following him who were “gay” first and Christian second; nor did he want the church to be a brothel. In this context it is possible that Paul told the ‘flamers’ to get lost; because these people showed themselves to be more interested in gay sex than in the initiation that Paul offered.
On the other hand I remain unconvinced that Paul condemned people who were discreet about their sexuality. I doubt that Paul was interested in spying on their liberty. I think the same is true on the issue of fornication: “All things are lawful.” Paul did not want his teaching to be used as a license to solicit prostitutes (Harlots); but at the same time, he was not against unmarried people who loved each other in a pure spirit. Indeed they were liberated from the Law, and nothing is impure for the pure.
The best reason I can advance for Paul not speaking in clear terms on the issue of gay sex or fornication is this: The aim of Paul’s ministry was to convert Jews along with Gentiles (Rom. 11). Paul knew that, typically, Jews were offended by homosexuality, and for this reason Paul had to present the gospel to them in a form that they would accept (1 Cor. 9:19–23). Indeed this reality is confirmed in Paul’s own words: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as under the Law, that I might win them that are under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:20). Note that Paul himself is not really under the Law; he only pretends to be when the occasion calls for it. In light of this, I raise the question of whether we can simply accept Paul’s anti-gay rhetoric at face value? Is Paul really down on homosexuality, or is he only down on the issue when the occasion calls for it?
I believe that Paul’s words “All things are lawful” points to his expectation of a time in the future when more enlightened views would prevail. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul warned his fellow Christians, who had “gnosis”, about flaunting their “liberty” in front of those who lacked knowledge. And once again there is that strange admonition: “Sober up to righteousness and stop sinning, for not all have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.” (1 Cor. 15:34) In these words Paul admits his belief that a sin is a sin only when it is committed in front of someone who lacks gnosis (agnosian). Hence All things are lawful, and gay sex is only a sin when it is displayed in front of someone who believes homosexuality is a sin.
Now some people will find my reasoning impossible to accept. But this passage in 1 Corinthians 6:9–12 is not the only place in the New Testament where there is a loophole on homosexuality and fornication. In the Gospel of John there is a conspicuous theme in which Jesus has a male lover, who is referred to repeatedly as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” And let us note the fact that nowhere in John is it said that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers. The disciple whom Jesus loved is a male figure. Moreover, the author of this Gospel informs us that this male figure is actually a subject of controversy for the other disciples. Thus at the end of this Gospel, as Jesus prepares to depart, Peter asks him in reference to the disciple:
“Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved… Peter, seeing him, asked Jesus, ‘Lord, what shall this man do?’ Jesus answered unto him, ‘If I will that he remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me’.” (Jn. 21:20–22)
Note the details in this exchange. Peter has a question about the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The language indicates that Jesus loved this disciple in a special way that was different from his relationship with all other men. Jesus loved this particular man. This relationship is so peculiar that Peter asks of Jesus as to what this guy will do when Jesus is gone. Jesus’s answer is practically a rebuke: “If I will that he remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow me!” Here Jesus puts Peter in his place. Why the controversy if there is not something unusual and unconventional about this relationship?
Personally I suspect that the author of the Gospel of John was a homosexual, and this was how he portrayed Jesus. Hence, Jesus’s love transcended the traditional conventions mandated by the Law of Moses. Because Jesus was divine and pure, he was able to engage in any form of love. The underlying theme here is that in the resurrection there will be no traditional conventions regarding love. Jesus and the disciple demonstrate this. Hence they are portrayed as being gay. Indeed this coincides with Paul’s admonition that “All things are lawful.”
I would also like to point out that this homosexual theme actually represents another fulfillment from Old Testament scripture, which also mentions a homosexual affair: between young David and his beloved friend, Jonathan. Indeed in the Old Testament David’s love confession is stated in plain language:
“Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)
Wow! For David, loving Jonathan is better than loving a woman! The underlying message here is that David and Jonathan were lovers. And for the Gnostic reader this passage is based on a very important theme. The conventional rational thinker would say that this passage is a contradiction because the Law of Moses condemns homosexuality. But for the Gnostic reader there is no contradiction here. In this case the love affair between David and Jonathan is an image of a higher paradigm. I refer to the first creation account in Genesis 1:27, where man is created in the image of God “male and female.” The Gnostic understands that David and Jonathan were loving each other in the image of a higher order, and not the order that was established by the lesser god, Jehovah, in Genesis 2, where Adam was created alone and male, and Eve was derived later from his rib, being female. For the Gnostic this is why David and Jonathan do not incur the wrath of the Lawgiver (the blind god), because they reflect the image of a higher God and have found grace. I propose that this concept I describe is also the underlying theme of Jesus’s affair with one of his male disciples.
Another latent homosexual theme, in the Gospel of John, may also be seen in the account of the Passover meal that is unique to this one Gospel, in John 13. Here Jesus is portrayed as behaving in a way that is atypical of Jewish culture and piety, and is more consistent with Greek culture. (Again, I think the author of this Gospel was definitely Greek, and he was probably gay–or at the very least, condoned homosexuality.) In John’s version of the Passover, Jesus is portrayed as standing up in the midst of the meal. He undresses himself and is completely naked. Such nudity on this occasion is certainly not consistent with Jewish culture and piety. Traditional Jewish culture rejects nudity whereas Greek culture celebrates it. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is walking around naked at the Passover meal. He then ties a towel around his waist, and proceeds to “wash the disciple’s feet.” Peter is portrayed as being very disturbed by these events, just as he was disturbed at the presence of the “disciple whom Jesus loved” as mentioned above.
Personally, I suspect that the imagery in this Passover account is meant to be symbolism which conceals a sacred rite, an initiation, that Jesus administered to his disciples. The towel around the waist represents the ceremonial apron that was worn by the high priests in the Mystery religions. And the “washing the disciple’s feet” conceals the rite that Jesus administered.
Epiphanius’s malicious account of the Gnostics is probably based on a misunderstanding of the account in John. He actually accused the Gnostics of quoting John as a sanction for literally eating semen as a sacrament (i.e. Jn. 6:53, Panarion, 26.8.4–6). Of course we are under no obligation to accept Epiphanius’s accusations as factual. I have explained the credibility problems regarding his account in my article Orthodox Outrage (see Article Directory). But certainly the Gospel of John does provide the basis of an allegorical doctrine regarding the spiritual seed that Gnostics receive both from Sophia, and through Christ. This is a spiritual reality that transcends traditional moral conventions. But if this is practiced literally it becomes an abominable sin and a work of the flesh, and the fleshly, hylic race. (The practice of literally eating sperm, and menstrual blood, is condemned in the strongest terms in the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, 387).
Coming back around now to the ethics of St. Paul, I believe that all of these ideas are implicit in Paul’s statement that “All things are lawful.” Paul believed that the Law of Moses would pass away with this age, and that gay sex is an image of a higher truth, which was also symbolized in the love between David and Jonathan.
On Paul’s ‘wrath of God’ speech in Romans 1:18–32.
Now again, some of my readers will object to my statements, and they will point to Paul’s ‘wrath of God’ speech, in Romans 1:18ff., as absolute proof that Paul condemned homosexual sex, viz. the sexual act itself (Romans 1:18–32f.). Here is a quote from the passage:
“For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust toward one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was due.” (Rom. 1:27)
The typical “orthodox” Christian will point to this passage as evidence that Paul condemned the act of homosexuality itself. But I would like to raise the question of whether this passage is being interpreted in its correct context? The passages I have already presented above suggest that Paul was not condemning homosexuality in and of itself, hence “All things are lawful.” Furthermore, Paul spoke of a social order where traditional structures no longer existed; hence: in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The question is: is there a relationship between the concept in Romans 1:27 and the concepts in 1 Cor. 6:12 and Gal. 3:28? I believe that we cannot simply ignore some concepts in favor of others.
I also want to briefly point out that Paul’s definition of nature in Romans 1:27 seems to be at variance with Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15:45–50 and Romans 8:21. In these passages Paul states that man according to nature (the “earthy”) and that nature itself (the “creature”) are under a state of corruption. Whereas in Romans 1:27 nature is made into a standard by which morality is defined. Again I question whether these concepts can be reconciled—and that we can’t just ignore some concepts in favor of others.
To me it is obvious that Romans 1:27 and the other passages are irreconcilable and that Romans 1:27 cannot be regarded as a true statement of Paul’s doctrine. I do believe that Paul wrote the passage but I do not believe it is an actual statement of his doctrine.
I think the cause behind this conflict of ideas is that “orthodox” Christians have misrepresented Paul’s words in Romans. The traditional interpretation is to the effect that Paul’s speech refers to pagans who have rejected the true God, and God in response gave them over to “vile affections.” However I believe there is evidence in the speech which shows that it reflects a conflict between Christian sects, and never referred to pagans at all. And, the words in Romans 1:27 do not refer to pagans, but are a repetition of slanderous rumors that circulated between sects.
To word this in another way: I would like to propose that what we really have here is a polemic by Paul against other, more conservative Jewish Christians who have misrepresented his ministry and doctrine. And that Paul’s words in Romans 1:27 are part of the list of accusations that he proposes to defend himself against. I know this seems far-fetched, but please bear with me as I explain the problems and set forth the evidence.
To begin with: I must inform my readers that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter of introduction (A. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul., pg. 44f. W. Kummel, Introduction to the NT, pg. 312). Paul has never been to Rome, and he sent this letter as an explanation of his doctrine in advance of his arrival. Now it is important to understand that a proper letter of introduction is a note of endorsement that is provided by a higher authority. In early Christianity a letter of introduction (or “commendation”) was a letter that the Apostolic leaders sent with an individual who was traveling among the churches. The letter confirmed that the man was authorized by the church leadership, and was not simply out on his own. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–5, Paul actually mentions the fact that he had no such letter to show to the churches in Greece (Kummel, ibid., pg. 284). In this context it is highly significant that Paul actually admits, in 2 Cor. 3:1–5, that he has no such letter. Paul also had no letter to take with him to Rome (note that Paul conveys no greetings from the Apostles at Jerusalem). Paul’s letter to the Romans is his own introduction, and it represents a defense of his doctrine. Paul even refers to his critics:
“For if the truth of God has abounded more through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I judged as a sinner? And not rather–as we be slanderously reported, and as some affirm that we say–let us do evil, that good may come?” (Rom. 3:7–8)
My point here is that the letter to Romans was written in the context of a conflict over Paul’s teaching on the Law, viz. his Liberation doctrine. Paul’s “wrath of God” speech is actually in reference to this conflict, and the accusations in the speech are those of Paul’s enemies, which are set forth as the starting place for his defense; his apology.
In “orthodox” tradition Paul’s speech is represented as an attack on pagans who are immoral and have a wrong view of God. This is supposedly represented in Paul’s words: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…And changed the glory of God into an image made like to corruptible man, and birds and four-footed beasts and creeping things… And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind… Being filled with all unrighteousness… Backbiters, haters of God…covenant breakers…” (Rom. 1:21, 23, 28, 30)
Supposedly this speech is an indictment against the pagans; but I would like to point out a number of details here which are inconsistent with a proper description of pagan religion. For one thing, Paul never actually mentions the issue of polytheism or idolatry. The words “idol” and “gods” do not appear here at all as compared with the other letters (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:4–5, “eidolon”/“theoi”). Paul’s entire speech is couched in the context of monotheism. Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). The problem here is that pagans had no truth of “God” to “suppress in unrighteousness.” Again, the pagans were polytheistic idolaters who worshipped false gods. There was no truth for them to suppress. The pagans never knew God as Paul described: “Because when they knew God, they glorified him not as God…” I believe these words refer to a heresy, and not to (supposed) pagan, polytheistic idolatry.
Paul also asserts that the sinners in question are “backbiters” and “haters of God…without understanding, covenant breakers…” (1:30). These words do not match clearly and neatly with the notion of an indictment of pagans. In reference to pagans, these words lack context. The simple fact is that not all pagans are “backbiters” or “covenant breakers.” If this were true then the Roman system of government could not exist. The Pax Romana would not exist. What Paul’s words really refer to is the rivalry and acrimony among Christian factions (read: heresies, cf. 1 Cor. 1:10–12, 11:18–19). The words “backbiters” and “covenant breakers”, etc., refer to accusations that rival Christians made against each other. Indeed these words only make sense in reference to parties who know each other, and who accuse each other of being backbiters, God haters and covenant breakers.
Again, I think Paul’s speech is a characterization of an attack made by his Jewish Christian adversaries. According to them, Paul is a backbiter (read: betrayer), a covenant breaker (Paul teaches against the Law) and a God hater (Paul disparages the Law of God).
There is also the accusation that the truth of God is “suppressed in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b). Of note is that Paul actually accuses Moses of this very offense in a polemic in 2 Corinthians 4:1–2, “Therefore seeing that we have this ministry…we do not fail; but have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking around in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully…” These words follow Paul’s statement that “Moses” has blinded the eyes of the Israelites to the death oriented nature of the Law: “Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech: and not as Moses, who placed a veil over his face, so that the children of Israel could not steadily behold that which was fading away. But their minds were blinded: for unto this day the same veil remaineth in the reading of the old testament…even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart” (2 Cor. 3:12–15).
Paul wrote the words above in reference to Jewish Christians who denounced his teaching on the Law. We should also note that this passage actually begins with the problem in that the Church leadership, presumably the Apostles at Jerusalem, refused to give Paul a letter of commendation, showing that Paul was sent by the Twelve. In 2 Corinthians 3:1–2 Paul writes to his readers that “Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men.” Paul goes on to explain that his Jewish Christian adversaries fail to understand that the Law of Moses represents the “ministry of death” and that the true redemption comes through the “Spirit” alone (2 Cor. 3:6–7, cf. Mt. 19:16–17). Paul believed that Moses misrepresented the word of God, which was symbolized by placing a veil over his face. Paul writes that this veil concealed the “fading glory” that radiated from Moses’ face after he spent forty days in the presence of the Lawgiver (i.e. Ex. 34:27–35). The meaning is that, according to Paul, Moses blinded the Israelites to the truth, which is that there is no salvation through the Law, and that this Law was given by lower angels, not God (Gal. 3:19, cf. Col. 2:13–18, Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2).
In Paul’s letters the “truth suppressed in unrighteousness” is a theme that has context and reflects an accusation that he made against Jews, and which Paul and his adversaries probably traded back and forth. In Galatians Paul argued that the Law of Moses was not from the supreme Being, but was given by lesser powers which were described as “angels”, “guardians” and “stewards” (Gal. 3:19, 4:1–2). Paul actually believed, and taught his followers, that observance of the Law had nothing to do with worshipping God: “But now, after ye have known God…why turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9) This was Paul’s warning to the Galatians against Jewish Christians who were attacking Paul, and were demanding that the Galatian Christians observe the Law of Moses. Paul’s warning is as follows: “Christ is become of no effect unto you: whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.” (Gal. 5:4) In these words it is obvious that Paul did not believe that the Law represented the righteous commands or worship of God. This theological position is reflected further in 1 Corinthians 10:18–19, “Behold Israel after the flesh: are they which eat of the sacrifices not partakers of the altar? What say I then? That the idol is anything, or that which is sacrificed to idols is anything?”
In the preceding passage Paul denounces temple rites at Jerusalem as mandated by the Law. Note that Paul refers to the God that Jews worshipped in the Temple as a false god or “idol” (cf. Acts 2:46, 21:20–26!). When we consider these passages above it is possible to understand how Jewish Christians would accuse Paul of “changing the truth of God into a lie” (Rom. 1:25).
Paul’s speech also reflects the accusation that there is homosexuality among his followers, because they do not retain a proper concept of God, as Lawgiver, in their minds (Rom. 1:25–27). It must be noted again that Paul does not exactly condemn homosexuality; he only condemns those who are enslaved by sexual desire. In reference to the sexual act itself, Paul states that “All things are lawful.” Paul means that under some circumstances it is lawful to engage in homosexual sex. Paul also states that in the new spiritual order, in Christ, that there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, or male and female (Gal. 3:28) Among Paul’s attackers this means that Paul and his followers lead lives of homosexual confusion. They break the covenant, and they revile (read: backbite) other Christians who adhere to traditional Jewish principles. Paul and his followers are God haters because they do not acknowledge the Godhead of the Lawgiver. Instead, they have reduced the Lawgiver to the level of the creation, and to the likeness of a man or animal. (This would be an exaggeration of Paul’s rejection of biblical anthropomorphic descriptions of God. This also assumes that the wording in Romans is unmolested by “orthodox” scribes.)
Thus what Paul’s speech actually describes is the lawless doctrine and lifestyle that Paul’s accusers claim that he leads (along with his followers). Paul repeats these accusations in their exaggerated and libelous context. Paul is not out to openly attack respected Apostolic leaders, which may back-fire; his purpose is to answer the charges against himself and his followers. For this reason he sets forth his speech like a riddle. Paul doesn’t make clear who the accusers and the accused are: he leaves it for his readers to make the connection. (Note: Paul’s historic conflict with the Jewish Christians, including the Apostles at Jerusalem, has been addressed in my three-part series St. Paul and the Apostolic Tradition.)
Another clue that Paul’s speech doesn’t refer to pagans can be seen in Romans 2:1. Here, Paul’s speech, supposedly against pagans, all of a sudden refers to Jews without a break or change in theme. In Romans 2 Paul warns Jews against judging other people when they sin against the Law themselves (Rom. 2:1ff, 17–23). In Romans 3 Paul admits to being a liar–in the same breath that he refers to God as the Lawgiver–but he denies teaching that Christians should practice “evil” so that “good” may come (Rom. 3:8). The balance of Romans is a diplomatic treatise in which Paul defends his teaching against the Law.
My main point is that in the ‘wrath of God’ speech, Paul is not condemning homosexuality, he is defending himself against the charge that he and his followers are homosexuals who embrace a wrong theology. If the reader follows the train of Paul’s ideas from Romans 1:18 to 2:29, it becomes obvious that Paul’s speech is actually a polemic against Jewish Christian prudes who judge others by the Law, but can’t keep the Law themselves–and will not acknowledge the grace (that Paul says) comes through Christ. Paul insists throughout Romans that the grace of Christ has supplanted the Law, and that this is the truth that all Jews should accept.
It is an elementary point for me to mention, once again, that “orthodox” tradition has recreated the Apostle Paul in its own image. But undoubtedly Paul’s letters, even in their present form, retain a lot of material that reflects on who Paul really was. Paul’s letters reflect that ancient world of early, Hellenistic Christianity that has been subsequently associated with the later Gnostics, such as the Naassenes and the Carpocratians . In Paul’s teaching there is a gap between the notion of absolute morality and the concept of liberty, and the notion that “All things are lawful.” Paul dispensed with the Jewish foundation of Christian morality in favor of the notion that a Christian’s nature and morality would be guided by the Spirit, and not by the letter of the Law (1 Cor. 3:6–7). This led to a certain level of chaos among Paul’s followers. And the later Catholic Fathers report that some Gnostic sects defined their radical ethics on the basis of such passages as 1 Corinthians 6:12 and Galatians 3:28. The later Gnostics were continuing Paul’s effort to articulate a spiritually enlightened social order based on liberty, equality and (to varying degrees) temperance.
Paul believed that a true moral ethic would be established when people put God first in their lives. Paul did not believe that this true morality could be reached by simply abstaining from and condemning homosexuality, or fornication. Paul understood that the acts of homosexuality and fornication were not at the root of the real problem in human nature. He recognized that the real problem was rooted in a lack of priorities: in a fundamental lack of understanding of what God’s nature really is, and in a lack of understanding the proper place of pleasure in human existence. Simply abstaining from and/or condemning homosexuality does not in itself make one a Godly person. Whereas a truly Godly person might be caught in a homosexual tryst–just as Jesus was portrayed in the Gospel of John, or as David and Jonathan in the books of Samuel.
The truth behind all of this is that true, divine Love transcends all conventions. All true Gnostics understand this without becoming slaves to vice. The shocking truth is that when two men love one another with a pure heart–the two become an image of the Divine. The problem however is that this divine love cannot be revealed before the eyes of those who are uninitiated, who lack gnosis. Aspiring gay Christians today would do well to heed Paul’s wisdom. According to Paul, gay Christians aren’t condemned because of gay sex which is lawful. They condemn themselves because they flaunt the liberty of the Gospel before the eyes of the uninitiated, by which they turn the liberty of gnosis into a stumbling block. –jw
1) Note the paradox between these passages:
From Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:12, “All things are lawful, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
From the Law of Moses, Leviticus 20:13, “If a man also lie with mankind…both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death…”
2) Clement of Alexandria reveals that Carpocratian morality was based in part on their attempts to interpret and apply Galatians 3:28 (Stromateis, 3.2.6). Hippolytus shows that the Naassenes noticed the subtle contradiction between Gal. 3:28 and Rom. 1:27 (Refutation of all Heresies, 5:2; Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, pg. 49f.).
By Jim West. Copyright © 2008, 2012. All Rights Reserved.