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Issues Facing Missions Today 64: The Argument that Homosexuality is Against Nature


Introduction

In his Discourses 2.10, the 1st/2nd century, Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, has a discussion of doing what is consistent with who or what one is—with one’s identity as a person.  Epictetus, who came a few decades after Paul, lived in Rome and offers a close historical parallel to Paul on the issue of homosexuality and the idea of living according to nature. He brings out several points that show some significant parallels with Paul’s point in Romans 1.26-27.  By reading Epictetus alongside Paul in these two passages, we can see quite clearly what Paul was saying—over against fanciful interpretations by revisionist interpreters in our day.

Epictetus (Discourses 2.10) and Paul (Romans 1.26-28)

The following points are in reference to section 10 of Epictetus's Discourses, book 2.  The section is too long to quote (though can be found online).  The most interesting sentences in this section address the 'pathic' (the male receiving sex from another male) and the 'cinaedos' (the male giving sex to another male), and this we can quote:

  • What is lost by the victim of unnatural lust? His manhood. And by the agent? Beside a good many other things he also loses his manhood no less than the other.

Yet the context of the whole of the section is pertinent for understanding Paul.

First, Epictetus’ notes that what makes a person (anthrōpos) distinct from animals is the capacity to use reason and observe the ‘divine administration’ of things and ‘the connection of things.’  Similarly, Paul’s primary point in Romans 1.18-28 is that humanity has the capacity to reason from the way the world is created.  Humanity should be able to reason that a Creator made the world, not an idol, and humanity should be able to reason that the female and the male were made for each other.  Therefore, females having sexual relations with females or males with males is unnatural and against reason.  Consequently, God gives humans over to a debased (adokimos) mind (nous) (Rom. 1.28).  Yet, because of God’s action in Christ, it is now possible to be transformed by renewing of the mind to know God’s will (Rom. 12.2)—what Epictetus would call ‘the divine administration’ and the proper ‘connection of things.’

Second, Epictetus discusses the proper connection of one’s identity to how one conducts oneself.  He gives several examples, such as what being a ‘son’ means for how one relates to the father.  He insists that one should be what one is—a senator, a youth, an old man—‘for each of such names, if it comes to be examined, marks out the proper duties.’  Paul’s similar understanding is that being a ‘female’ implies that the genitals should be used for their ‘natural use’ (physikēn chrēsin) (Rom. 1.26) and being a male means that the male genitals should be used for their ‘natural use’ (Rom. 1.27).  That Paul’s point is, as Epictetus’s point, the relation between what one is and what that means for ‘natural use’ is clear from Paul’s repetition of the phrase in both verses.  (Note: English translations of these verses need to retain the use of the word 'use' (chrēsin) to carry Paul's point.)

Third, Epictetus speaks of what it means for someone to act out of character by misusing what he or she should use properly.  The smith who misuses a hammer, the brother who treats his brother as an enemy, or a man who acts as a wild beast are examples of failing to relate identity to behaviour or proper use of things.  Similarly, Paul’s point in Rom. 1.26-27 is that lesbians misuse their genitals as homosexual men misuse theirs as sex was intended to be between a male and a female.

Fourth, Epictetus says that the misuse of things means the loss of something that involves some damage.  Similarly, Paul says that men committing ‘disgraceful acts’ with men receive in themselves the inevitable reward of their error (Rom. 1.27).  As an example, Epictetus mentions that the adulterer loses the character of modesty, temperance, decency, and the expected roles of a citizen and neighbour.

Fifth, Epictetus gives other examples of who loses what when acting against their identity.  In particular, he mentions homosexuality.  He says that the man receiving sex from another man (the ‘pathic’) loses the man (the character of a man), and the man performing an act of sex on another man loses ‘many things’.  Similarly to Epictetus’ reasoning and Paul’s point in Romans 1.27, in 1 Cor. 6.18 Paul notes that ‘the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.’  In Romans 1.26-27, however, Paul's argument about human disregard for the natural, created order requires examples not of any sin but specifically of unnatural sins--sins against nature: idolatry (the unnatural sin against the creator) and homosexuality (the unnatural sin against one's fellow creation).

Note, sixth, that Epictetus does not simply say that the man playing the role of a female loses something but that both the passive and active male in a homosexual act lose something of who they are.  Paul, too, makes no distinction between persons involved in same-sex acts.  They are persons whom God hands over to their lusts, dishonourable passions, and debased minds (Rom. 1.24, 26, 28).

Finally, seventh, Epictetus’ discussion has to do with acting according to nature or against it.  Both Paul and Epictetus use this language and do so in a standard way.  Natural does not mean according to one’s character, normal behaviour, or social mores; it means acting in accordance with the natural order, how things were created.

Conclusion

Why are these parallels between Epictetus and Paul important?  Revisionist interpreters have speculated that Paul means something other than the obvious reading of the text—the reading given Rom. 1.24-28 for two thousand years.  Revisionists disagree among themselves as to what Paul might have meant—suggesting acts such as pederasty[1] or idolatry (temple prostitution)[2] or lust[3] and other creative but impossible notions that restrict Paul's meaning—but they all agree that they need to find some other act than homosexual acts of women (lesbians) and men otherwise they will have to admit Paul was actually talking about homosexuality per se.  Epictetus shows the nature of the argument in close parallel to Paul.  Reading Epictetus’ discussion in his Discourses 2.10, frankly, undermines every other imagined argument offered by revisionist interpreters of Paul’s point in Romans 1.26-28.  The only reading of ancient texts that counts is their reading in context—historical, cultural, and literary context.  Everything else is reading into the text.




[1] Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1984).
[2] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church, Rev. Ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).  See p. 76.
[3] Preston Sprinkle, People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).