Steve Chalke – I beg you to reconsider and side with what the Creator said about gay sex

One of the less graphic images excavated from ancient Pompeii.Wikimedia Commons

In recent news, Steve Chalke, who would describe himself as evangelical but who has shifted on many different issues, has released material claiming that ancient Roman scenes of gay debaucherous sex depicted in excavations from ancient Pompeii should be reason to revise our view of Romans 1.

These arguments from the revisionist camp, however, simply make no sense of the research. Biblical scholar E P Sanders clearly dismisses the notion that homosexual loving and romantic relationships didn't exist, and appeals to the fact there were often Roman equivalents to same-sex unions accepted in various eras of Roman life. Similarly many gay relationships were known, accepted and even celebrated among the nobility and in the lives of Emperors.

Throughout the ancient world it is a gross simplification of sexual expression to say that all homosexual sex was limited to abuse or lust between a virile, penetrative male and a passive emasculated partner. Many words were used by the Greeks to describe exploitative forms of sexuality between males and none of these does the Apostle employ. So, what does the Bible really say on the subject that Chalke has attempted to sidestep? Much of the research I have been doing at Oxford University (and will be presented in my upcoming book, A War of Loves) has focused upon marriage and same-sex relationships – and is summarised below.

Jesus and Genesis
Jesus in the Gospels clearly teaches that marriage is, in and of itself, between a man and a woman. When quoting directly from the 'creation' narrative in Genesis 1-3, Jesus does so by rendering what appears in the Hebrew original text as the narrator's voice, to be coming directly from the Creator's own mouth. In Matthew 19:4, he states: 'Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning "made them male and female", and said, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh"?' Jesus does so in light of the distinction between 'nature' and 'creation' – the distinction between our bodies now and our bodies before death marred all of creation.

It was necessary for Jesus to emphasise the word of the Creator in addition to the mere act of creating, or the result of it. He reminds his hearers of the significance of sexual difference, and marriage between one man and woman, which had ceased to be morally apparent. Jesus is clarifying that for a male and a female to become husband and wife – by leaving their families behind and becoming sexually one body in forming a new family – that is not just 'how things normally go' (the 'norm' as average), but how God has made them and explicitly wishes them to be understood (the 'norm' as ought to be).

Also, Jesus, as the one who fulfilled the whole Torah and moral Law of Moses, says that not one 'tittle' will pass from it, including such keenly relevant passages as Leviticus 18 and 20. In this sense, when Jesus, as a Jewish Rabbi, uses the Greek term 'porneia' (which means sexual immorality) in what he says in Matthew 19, it would have referred in his Jewish context, to these Leviticus passages.

Leviticus 18 and 20
So, what about shellfish and mixed fibres which are often the attention-grabbing elements of Leviticus 18 and 20? The Levitical Code of Israel was designed to set the nation apart from the gentile nations, but also morally to instruct God's people. In the New Testament, the division between Gentile and Jew was undone by Jesus' life, death and resurrection, 'making one humanity out of the two'. (Ephesians 2:14-15) This provided a new means of putting people in right relationship with God, which meant those purity laws listed in Leviticus had been fulfilled.

One's belonging to God was no longer through markers like not eating shellfish, but through obedience and faith to Israel's Messiah. External purity was no longer of concern because, as Jesus reflects in Matthew 8:11, the Kingdom of God had come and Gentiles (non-Jewish people) are coming into it.

In Acts 15, the early church met to rule on Paul's view that the Jewish purity laws were no longer applicable to Gentile believers, nor the source of the Christian's right standing before God. They ruled that all 'porneia' or sexual immorality was wrong which, given their Jewish identity, would have referred directly to Jewish custom and law. The Law still remained a guide, teaching where the markers were for moral or internal transgressions and sins of the heart. In this sense, then, Leviticus 18 and 20 reveal what is still sexually immoral as reflected in some of Paul's letters for Christians today.

Romans 1
The consensus of the vast majority of biblical scholars, from both the more critical and orthodox sides, confirms that homosexuality was understood implicitly but never represented as a kind of identity in the ancient world. Such a view of unnatural sexual acts was present in the Greco-Roman and, most directly in the Jewish Law. While it is true that there was an understanding of homosexual affections as predominantly virile expressions of power over another, there were also many counter-examples of loving gay romances and gay love poetry that would echo and resemble a gay marriage. This included love affairs during the time of Emperors such as Caesar and Augustus, and throughout Greco-Roman history.

To say that Paul would never have conceived of a loving, erotic, gay relationship is historically inaccurate and a desperate clutching at straws. In verses 25-26 of the first chapter in Paul's letter to the early Christian church in Rome, Paul uses the terms 'kata physin' ('according to nature') and 'para physin' ('against nature'). These terms refer to a definition of human nature that isn't determined by innate desires (like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche describes) or power and identity politics (like fellow philosopher Michel Foucault promotes).

For the Jews, human nature was related to the image of God and thus God's own nature. For the Greco-Roman world, 'proper use' sums up their approach to human nature. In such contexts, Paul uses same-sex acts as the counter-analogue to the image of God (which is male and female in Genesis): 'where they exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.' (Romans 1:26-27) Paul gives a theological account of the fallen world 'out there', which inverts and exchanges the image of God (given by the Creator as male and female) in a system of broken worship that leads to improper use. He is not describing 'gay people', but the effect of sin's entry into the world. One such effect was the production of desires for the same-sex but also, more generally, broken sexuality was another effect of sin.

Paul uses same-sex acts as a description of universal human or 'gentile' sinfulness precisely because the Jewish understanding assumed, within the Law, that such acts were not on the table ethically. As New Testament scholar Richard B Hays states, "in sharp contrast to the immediate recollections of the creation story, Paul, portrays homosexual behaviour as a 'sacrament' of the anti-religion of human beings who refuse to honour God."

1 Corinthians 6:9
As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul transliterated the Hebrew terms mishav ['one who lies with' – koitēs, in ancient Greek] and zakur [male – arsēn, in ancient Greek] from the Greek translation of the Jewish Torah (LXX) from Leviticus 18. He then invents a term in 1 Corinthians 6, forming a brand new word arsenokoitai to describe homosexuality more generally. Words did exist in Greek language to describe homosexual partners; however, Paul takes the next step from the Torah, translating this Jewish sexual ethic to the Gentile world. EP Sanders, a more liberal biblical scholar states that "Paul himself condemned homosexual activity and warned his converts against the pleasures of the flesh," even though Sanders disagrees with Paul's view.

As a celibate gay Christian, having leaders of the faith like Steve Chalke actively dismiss and ignore the experience of celibate gay Christians like me is a betrayal of true Christian love. He jumps on the bandwagon of being progressive without looking for the real Kingdom of God marked by self-death and holiness. His yielding on his approach to marriage is a deep betrayal of not just LGBTQI Christians who need truth and love, but of our Lord Jesus Christ. Arguments from silence in scripture and faulty context are unworthy of my brothers and sisters like Chalke, who do not represent me as a celibate gay man following Christ.

For these reasons and many others, I write to ask Steve Chalke to reconsider and to side with what the Creator really said in the beginning and to stop attempting arguments from the itching desires to see something which simply is not there. Hold his word out to the world, Steve, but, by all means, don't reinvent or twist it. Please don't give us love without truth. We have been unloved enough in the past.

David Bennett will be telling his personal story from being an anti-Christian gay rights activist to meeting God in a pub, in 'A War of Loves' (published by Zondervan next year). He has completed first class postgraduate studies in theology this year at Oxford University and will be heading to complete a masters at St Andrews, Scotland.

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