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Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’: Misreading Romans 1 and Richard Hays

By Murray Henderson

‘This Holy Estate’ is the recent report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada. The commission was established by the Council of General Synod as it sought to prepare a motion to be presented at the General Synod of 2016, which would change the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada to allow the marriage of same-sex couples (THE, 1). In addition to other tasks, the commission was mandated “to prepare documentation demonstrating how such a change in the church’s traditional teaching on Christian marriage could be understood to be scripturally and theologically coherent.”

The primate and the “officers of the General Synod” selected the commission’s members for their demonstrated “capacity to hear and understand the theological diversity represented in the Anglican Church of Canada.” Sadly, the document offers a consistent “revisionist” view, especially in its attempted scriptural and theological rationale. The document appeals to the authority of Scripture (see 5.1) and the need for the community to “digest” its message (in line with the BCP collect for the Second Sunday of Advent), but the report’s engagement with relevant Scripture passages is one-sided, superficial, and often misleading.

Nowhere is the failure to provide an adequate biblical rationale more glaring than in the report’s brief section dealing with the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1 as to whether homosexual relations are “a perversion of natural law or creation order” ( In particular, the section dismisses any objection to same-sex marriage based on this passage. It purports to offer insights from Richard B. Hays’s book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper Collins, 1996), especially regarding the overall rhetorical aim of the passage. Hays, however, cannot be claimed to support the revisionist view of Romans 1. Contrary to the report’s attempt to insinuate that Paul does not regard same-sex relations as sinful and contrary to nature, Hays argues that this is precisely what Paul asserts.

The report’s treatment here is emblematic of its superficial engagement with Scripture, as well as the relevant scholarly literature. I offer this piece not to belabor this point, but to provide a detailed picture of how the report’s attempts to draft support for its dubious proposition miss the mark.

The key text here is Romans 1:24-27:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading for their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

The report alludes to the well-known fact that the Greek word para with the accusative usually means not “against” but “in excess of.” The revisionist scholar John Boswell was one of the first to draw significant attention to this fact in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 1980). He argued that Paul was not claiming that homosexual acts are “against nature” but rather merely “beyond nature.” This served as a key part of Boswell’s argument that homosexual relations are not morally wrong or sinful (and has been used in such a way in various revisionist publications since the 1980s). However, even Boswell admitted in a footnote that para physin is precisely the kind of stock phrase in which para does mean “against” (see Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p. 111).

In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays noted that an opposite phrase, kata physin (“natural”), was commonly used in Stoic texts to describe right moral action (p. 387). Moreover, Hays pointed out that Hellenistic Jews commonly used para physin (that is para with the accusative) in polemic against homosexual behavior. The context of Romans 1 thus strongly suggests that Paul is taking over terminology from both Greek philosophical and Hellenistic Jewish contexts in his reference to same-sex sexual behavior: it is “contrary to nature” in Romans 1. Hays concluded that Paul identified “nature” with the “created order.”

Paul is speaking of homosexual behavior not merely as “beyond” general norms, but as an example of the rebellion of the Gentiles against God the Creator. The creation account of Genesis 1 and 2 is clearly in view.

Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they [the Gentiles] are without excuse. (Rom. 1:20)

In the passage before us in 1:24-27, homosexual behavior (among other vices) flows from idolatry, as the true worship of the Creator is exchanged for a lie: the worship of the creature.

It is worth noting that same-sex relations between women are included as part of this rebellion against the Creator: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” (1:26b). Revisionists often make the claim that it is not homosexual relations per se that are the object of Paul’s judgment, but rather degraded forms of that behavior, such as Greek male pederasty. But anything comparable to male pederasty among lesbians is rarely cited in ancient Greek literature. The mention of lesbianism demonstrates that Paul judges homosexual relations in themselves to be sinful and against nature, and not a supposed debased form of them.

Despite Paul’s strong words, I want to emphasize that the apostle is not singling out homosexual relations as though they were particularly heinous sins. As a parish priest of the Anglican Church of Canada I am committed to love those members of my parish family with homosexual feelings, recognizing my own sexual brokenness as a heterosexual person.

In what follows in 1:28-32, a list of vices is given that are not sexual sins, such as greed and hatred of parents. Paul’s point is that rebellion against the Creator takes many forms, all of which favor practices that are both the sign and consequence of the “exchange” by which human fallenness distorts God’s created order (1:25).

‘This Holy Estate’ is especially misleading in its attempt to show that Paul’s “concern” in the passage is “not sexuality, but self-righteousness.” The document attributes this view to Richard Hays, in his reference to “a homiletical sting operation” (Hays, Moral Vision, p. 389).

For Hays, the sting operation is based on the sins of the Gentiles described in Romans 1, and occurs in Romans 2:1. Hays builds up to “the sting” by demonstrating the immorality of all of the sins of the Gentiles listed in Romans 1. But it is just as his Jewish and Christian readers are full of self-righteous indignation that “the sting strikes.” In passing judgment on the vices of the Gentiles, Jews and others are condemning themselves. Hays points out: “The radical move that Paul makes is to proclaim that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, stand equally condemned under the just judgment of a righteous God” (ibid.).

The report is right in stating that sexuality is not Paul’s main concern in Romans 1. However, Paul’s condemnation of self-righteousness in no way negates his condemnation of other vices. Rather, self-righteousness and homosexuality (and greed and hatred, etc.) are sinful.

What then, is Paul’s main concern in Romans 1? Paul’s concern is to reveal the truth of the human condition. Whether a person is beset by covetousness, gossip, or sexual sins, Paul shows a fallen and confused humanity tragically caught up in rebellion against God and his created order. The self-righteousness of Romans 2 is equally dangerous. For Gentiles lost in their vices and for the Jews who condemn them, there is the good news of God’s salvation in Christ.

The report’s misreading of Romans 1 and its spurious attempt to enlist Richard Hays as support for that misreading reflects the revisionist bias of its misuse of Scripture. We should expect more, when the Anglican Church of Canada is considering such a serious issue. The report fails dramatically in its attempt to provide a biblical and theological rationale for this departure from the Church’s teaching.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Murray Henderson is incumbent of Christ Church St. James’s Anglican Church, Etobicoke, Diocese of Toronto.

The introduction and links to other posts in the series Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’ may be found here.

The featured image is from the Sistine Chapel, and is in the public domain. 


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