*This post is part of a series dealing with a very difficult topic. It contains some mature language and themes.
The second argument I will examine is from Dr. William Loader. Loader is “widely regarded as the foremost scholar on sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity.” He received his doctorate in theology from Mainz, Germany and has contributed five scholarly volumes to the academic literature surrounding sexuality in ancient culture.
Loader is one of the two writers I’ll cover who affirm same sex union in the church. While many affirming viewpoints tend bend over backward to interpret scripture in a way that allows for homosexual practice, such as raising questions about Greek words found in the text, Loader does not take that approach at all. Instead, he applies a rather traditional hermeneutic in understanding Paul’s writing in particular.
Loader begins by observing
“Not all people are simply male or female. The matter is even more complicated because one’s orientation can change over a lifetime, and for some their orientations is in both directions, homosexual and heterosexual. Most have long since abandoned the belief that any such variations are to be accounted for by deliberate perversion on the part of the individual.”Loader, 18
He then gives an account of the experience of many gay individuals, “The argument has been mounted that Scripture does not judge a person because of their orientation…it’s okay for them to be gay and have homosexual feelings as long as they do not act on them.” (pg. 19). Loader claims this position is a “softening” of what the text really says, which is that the orientation itself, not just sexual acts, as a symptom of sin.
Loader points to Paul’s chain of reasoning in Romans 1 and claims, “In part it is a psychological argument.” *Here I will quote the book passage as laid out by Loader* Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts [minds] were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise they became fools” (Rom. 1:21-22) That is why, explains Paul, they “exchanged the glory of immortal God for images made to look like mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:23). Then Paul continues, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts [minds] to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (1:24).
So, Loader argues, Paul is claiming that God gave people over to their perverse passions because they changed the truth of God for a lie and failed to worship God as God. “It is not just that they now had strong homosexual passions and acted on them, but that they had homosexual attraction at all.” So the attraction is seen as a psychological malfunction which is contrary to the created order. These desires are not neutral, to be acted on or refused, they are a manifestation of a state of perversion. According to Loader, Paul’s writing indicates that having homosexual feelings is in fact a result of a perverted state of mind and contrary to how we ought to be.
Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, Loader deems it a false comfort to urge those with homosexual feelings to simply remain celibate. If his reading of Paul is correct, a perverse understanding of God has led to a perverted understanding of both God and themselves, and this has led to their state of desiring the same sex rather than the opposite. Paul categorizes homosexual passions with other results of a depraved mind, “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, God-haters, arrogant, boastful…” (Rom. 1:28-32) In his conclusion, Loader sums up by saying, “Paul sees (homosexuality) as sin generated by the sin of not acknowledging God’s true nature. If we are serious about letting Scripture speak for itself and reading it in context, then we will avoid all such attempts from left and right to explain it away, however compassionately motivated our misreadings may be.” (pg. 43)
Three Possible Ways Forward
In the end, Loader presents three possible ways forward, which I will briefly summarize.
- Repent and Repair
This option asks those who have homosexual desires to repent of their corruption and seek to be “made right” sometimes through the use of conversion therapy or other means of getting gay folks to be straight. The church has largely (almost wholly) rejected conversion therapy as a way forward, thankfully. However, another move in this direction could include “seeking to help them find ways out of their sin and its effects. (pg. 43)” In the end, the orientation must be reversed before gay people can be deemed “normal.”
- Accept and Refrain
This route seeks to hold together what the scripture seems to be saying and what we observe in real life. This approach is able to accept gay folks the way they are (does not condemn their orientation as sin), but it requires celibacy. Being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, but sexual expression is not permitted. Of this view Loader writes, “It seems very unfair and inconsistent to tell people that it’s OK to be gay, but not OK to give natural expression to their sexuality. This does not really do justice to gay people.” (pg. 44)
- Accept and Affirm
Loader’s stance aligns with this third option. He writes,
“The reason why Paul argued as he did is that he, like other Jews of his time…, believed that all people were heterosexual, male or female. Given that assumption about human reality, his conclusions make sense.”Loader, 45
Loader argues homosexuality is one of many areas in which it has become necessary to supplant first century understandings with more contemporary ones. “To do so is not to show disrespect for biblical writers, but to stand alongside them in their commitment to truth and willingness to change as essential to their faith.” (pg. 45)
From Loader’s perspective, Paul in Romans absolutely condemns same sex erotic acts. In fact, Loader claims that Paul is even condemning a homosexual orientation. Many theologians read Paul to be condemning gay sexual acts, but Loader claims Paul is actually equating homosexual orientation (attraction to the same sex) as a result of a perverted mind. According to Loader, Paul’s whole argument is based on humanity trading its knowledge of God for worldly knowledge. The result is disastrous in a multitude of ways, and homosexual acts and desires are part of the consequence. In case it wasn’t clear enough, both homosexual acts and feelings are sinful as they are the result of a depraved mind.
Loader arrives at an affirming view by arguing that we now have a greater understanding, of the world and sexuality, than Paul and other ancient writers of scripture did. Loader writes, “Biblical writers held beliefs and attitudes which for good reason we no longer share.” (pg. 20) And he points to such things as age of creation, the sequence of creation, origin of women, the origin of labour in giving birth, in working poor soils, in controlling weeds, the origin of languages, the world as a flat, the status of women, marriage and divorce, and slavery. “In all of these we have needed to update the biblical writers’ understanding and assumptions and respectfully acknowledge that their witness…was expressed in the language and thought-world of its time.” He then asks if homosexuality is another of these beliefs about which we need to update our understanding.
He advises us to go beyond what Paul has taught and make space for gay couples in the church.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Loader’s argument hinges on the idea that we understand the world more fully than Paul was able to. Scientific inquiry into human sexuality simply didn’t exist when Paul was writing. The word of every author bears the marks of the time period and the culture of the writer. Paul understood the world and the people living in it very differently, and in many ways less fully, than we do today. This is a strong point of Loader’s argument. Loader is also correct in pointing out ways in which the church has deemed some of Paul’s teaching to be culturally specific and no longer applicable (e.g. women in the church). I was raised in a theologically conservative environment, and so I find Loader’s conservative interpretation of the text very familiar.
The weakness of Loader’s argument lies in his view of scripture. It is disconcerting for many (most even) to acknowledge that we’re alright “moving beyond” or that we now understand more fully than those writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The obvious question is if we can move beyond whenever we feel we’ve gained a better understanding, what are we tied to? Still Loader insists we can (and already do) recognize where first century, and much earlier, writings no longer reflect the situations believers find themselves navigating. While Loader is certainly genuine in his view that we can respect the authority of scripture, this does pose a lot of difficult questions and place a lot of authority in the hands of the contemporary reader. Since the Reformation, when the power of interpreting scripture was ripped from the hands of the clergy and given to the common people, we have largely moved away from reading and interpreting scripture in community. Loader’s view of scripture in a context where readers are deriving their own meaning seems to have tumultuous implications.
While I am intrigued by Loader’s angle into this issue, it seems significant that there have been no orthodox church fathers (or extremely few) who have taken this position. Loader’s view stands in direct opposition to more than a thousand years of church tradition. It seems most of my classmates were not persuaded by his arguments. I do see evidence of Loader’s claim – we have moved beyond New Testament Biblical teaching in some other areas. And some horrific practices (slavery in the antebellum South) were condoned by pointing to scripture, i.e. slaves obey your masters, which have now been updated. Still, it’s not clear to me this is an area where we can move beyond Paul’s teaching. I don’t know what to do with Loader’s claim that Paul assumes homosexual attraction is evidence and manifestation of sin. Perhaps we could say (as Holmes does in part 1 of this series) that all our desires, gay – straight – and otherwise – are broken and in need of redemption.