An Enquiry Concerning The Evangelical Religion
By Brian Rainey
When I was about fifteen, I was beginning to come to grips with the fact that I was gay. Coming out as gay in the late 1990s was not, and still is not, a big deal. The problem was that I was raised in the right-wing evangelical tradition, which, of course, condemns the expression of homosexual orientation. Consequently, I faced three choices: 1.) I could abandon my faith, 2.) I could attempt to “change” my sexual orientation or 3.) I could attempt to reconcile my faith with homosexuality. At first, I concentrated on the second option. I read a version of The Eagle Story, and in the theological commentary at the end of the story, the book recommended that one struggling with temptation (it didn’t specify what kind) read and memorize Romans chapter 6 and 9. Whenever a temptation presented itself, reciting those passages mentally was supposed to help someone overcome their temptations. I did what The Eagle Story suggested, and each time I had an attraction to another boy, I would recite either Romans 6 or 9 in my head. Considering that the average male thinks about sex every seven minutes, reciting these verses every time I had an attraction to another boy became psychologically exhausting. Rather than go insane with the obsessive recitation of biblical passages, I decided to consider option three, which led me to an intensive investigation of the Bible. In the course of about a year and a half, I read the Bible from cover to cover and explored many commentaries on homosexuality and the Bible. To my satisfaction, I discovered that expression of homosexual orientation was in fact compatible with the evangelical religion. The writings of John Boswell, a former Jesuit priest, greatly influenced this discovery. Concerning Romans 1:26-27, a passage traditionally used to condemn homosexuality, which reads:
“God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men committing indecent acts with men …”
“the persons that Paul condemns [in Romans 1:26-27] are manifestly not homosexual: what he condemns are homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons. The whole point of Romans 1, in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were once on. It would completely undermine the thrust of the argument if the persons in question were not ‘naturally’ inclined to the opposite sex in the same way they were ‘naturally’ inclined to monotheism. What caused the Romans to sin was not that they lacked what Paul considered proper inclination, but that they had them; they held the truth, but in unrighteousness because they did not see fit to retain him in their knowledge.”
Boswell bases his argument on the usage of the Greek words (para phusin) in the New Testament. To interpret Paul’s statement, “their women exchanged the natural [phusin] for that which is unnatural [para phusin],” Boswell looks at the other instances in which Paul used the word phusin and para phusin.
Fr. Daniel Helminiak in his book, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality sums up Boswell’s observations of the use of :
“In Galatians 2:15, Paul speaks of those who are Jews by nature and in Romans 2:27, he speaks of those that are Gentile by nature [physin]. In Romans 2:14, Paul speaks of Gentiles that follow their own conscience and ‘do instinctively what the law requires,’ but the Greek text reads ‘by nature’ [physin] and the Gentiles act as is consistent with the kinds of persons they are…or again in I Corinthians 11:14, Paul writes, ‘does not nature [physin] itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is degrading to him?'”
Because the word often refers to one’s personal nature, Boswell and Helminiak argue that Paul is not condemning those that commit homosexual acts per se, but those that go against their own personal nature to commit homosexual acts. Because the word “exchanged,” (v. 26) which implies a conscious choice is used, Boswell concludes that the immorality Paul condemns is not homosexual activity purposefully suppressing ones nature. The condemnations in Romans 1 are specifically addressed to those (anthropon ton ten aletheian en adikia katekhonton) “men that suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18).
But despite the fact that I discovered homosexuality and evangelicalism were compatible, and even though I had every intention of reconciling the Bible with my sexuality, I soon realized that in my investigation of the Bible, many questions arose. And after reflecting on these questions, I realized that it was no longer defensible to be associated with the evangelical religion. As I became more secure in my rejection of the evangelical religion, I began to seriously think about and investigate the philosophical implications of atheism and rejection of religious belief. Now, there are many reasons that I continue to consider myself an atheist; but only the observations of the evangelical religion that led to my initial rejection of it are discussed in this essay.
The beginning of the end was when I saw right-wing evangelicals bitterly criticizing Boswell’s interpretation of Romans 1, suggesting that his interpretation equivocates the “plain sense” of the text. In my personal investigation of the Bible, however, I came across explicit commands in the Bible that Christians simply do not follow because they equivocate the “plain sense” of a passage. For instance, I discovered Romans 13:1-3, 6-7:
“Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God . Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause for fear for good behavior but for evil…Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. ”
I became particularly angry with adherents to the evangelical religion when I realized that, while dogmatically insisting that homosexuality is immoral based on their view of the Bible, they blatantly ignore the implications of Romans 13—or use ludicrous interpretative methods to explain it away.
The vast majority of Christians: evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and mainline Protestants all celebrate the American Revolution—an event that flies in the face of Paul’s command in Romans 13. The word “resist” in Romans 13:2 is the Greek word ? ( antitassomenos), a combination of the word anti (which means “against,” of course) and the verb tasso (which means “to appoint or ordain”). In other words, to rebel, or to set oneself up “against that which is ordained or appointed” is what Paul condemns (Paul does not necessarily condemn “disobedience” to governing authority, though it could be argued that obedience is a part of submission). I would say that the American colonists fit the description of antitassomenos. Additionally, Paul says, “render…tax to whom tax is due,” and in many other instances in the New Testament, Christians are commanded to pay taxes—remember Jesus says “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” One would think that no Christian would justify rebellion against a governing authority on the grounds that they found the taxes unfair—especially considering the fact that taxes in the first century went to the construction of temples for Roman gods and emperors. But one of the major reasons for the rebellion of the American colonists was their intense dissatisfaction with what they perceived as unfair tax policies. Despite Paul’s commands and the nature of the American Revolution, right-wing evangelicals loudly denounce the promotion of homosexuality in schools, but do not protest the glorification of rebellion against “governing authority” by condemning the American Revolution. Also, as far as I know, most Christians celebrate the Fourth of July with barbecues and church picnics, which commemorates what, according to Paul, is “sin.”
In Romans 13:1-3,6-7, Paul makes what I like to call, “absolute statements.” The language of phrases like “there is no authority except from God” and “the one who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” requires that they cannot be equivocated. One cannot say, “there is no authority except those established by God” and then say “well…maybe some authority isn’t established by God” because the former is a point blank, absolute declaration. Any interpretation of this passage must be accountable to the “absolute statements” of Romans 13:1-3,6-7. Because Romans 13 suggests that the entire “American experiment” is a “sinful” endeavor, Paul’s absolute statements have not stymied right-wing evangelical attempts to make this passage not say what it actually says. Everett F. Harrison, in his commentary on Romans in the right-wing Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary says this about Romans 13:
“There are two ways to deal with [Romans 13]. 1.) Paul is presenting the norm here, i.e. the ideal for government, which is certainly that of punishing evil and rewarding or encouraging good…this interpretation does allow for revolution in cases where rights are denied and liberties taken away, since the state has ceased to fulfill its God-appointed function … the Christian community is obliged to voice its criticism of the state’s failure and deviation from the divinely ordained pattern (588-89).”
To Harrison’s credit, his second “way to deal with” the Romans 13 question suggests that one should submit to governing authority in all circumstances, and that in the end God will work things out for the obedient Christian—an interpretation loyal to the meaning of the text. On the other hand, in discussing Paul’s reference to same-sex activity in Romans 1,Harrisondogmatically insists that homosexuality is clearly condemned by Paul. It says a great deal aboutHarrisonthat he will give legitimacy to an interpretation of Romans 13 that undermines the text, but will not even mention Boswell’s hypothesis concerning homosexuality and Romans 1.
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., et al in their book The Hard Sayings of the Bible agrees with Harrison’s initial interpretation by saying, “If…the authority of the state runs counter to [the] divine intent [reward evil, punish good], then the authority should not be understood as God given” (575).
But the interpretative “escape hatches” that Kaiser, et al. and Harrisonhave fabricated have absolutely no justification in the text or in common sense for that matter. Kaiser, et al.’s suggestion that any state could hypothetically not be God given is preposterous because Paul says plainly, “there is no authority except from God” and “those which exist are established by God.” Harrison and Kaiser, et al.’s assertion that Paul’s words in Romans 13 permits rebellion against governments that “deny civil rights” is also nonsense considering that Paul was thinking of submission to Roman authorities, who routinely trampled on civil rights. If, in Paul’s mind, it was permissible to rebel against a governing authority that denied civil rights—which the Roman government did often—there was absolutely no reason to tell the church at Rome to submit to governing authority! Actually, the implication of Romans 13 is that it would be better to endure tyrannical government than to resist a governing authority; because to resist authority would undermine what Paul saw as the natural relationship between government and the governed, which was designed to “punish evil and reward good.” To Paul, preserving the design of the relationship between the governed and the government was more important than moral objections to the government.
The only correct resolution to Romans 13 is the resolution suggesting that if one submits to authority, God will work things out in the end. Perhaps if a tyrant asked a Christian to “sin,” out of obedience to Paul’s commandment, the Christian should plan to obey the tyrant. Perhaps, as God stayed Abraham’s hand in Genesis, he will present a scenario so that a Christian, who is obedient to the command in Romans 13, does not have to “sin.” Perhaps if a government is overtly tyrannical, since there is no governing authority except from God, God himself will intervene on the people’s behalf. However, what is not permissible, according to Paul, is rebellion.
Right-wing evangelical interpretations of Romans 13 are at least on the same level as Boswell’s interpretation of Romans 1 (and in my opinion Boswell is more loyal to the text than is Harrison and Kaiser et al). The fact that right-wing evangelicals smugly condemn Boswell’s interpretations and at the same time engage in the same interpretative tactics reveals much about their nature and character.
In a similar vein, the Bible specifically commands slaves to obey their masters:
“Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than men…” (Colossians 3:22-23).
The writer of 1 Peter elaborates on commandments for slaves:
“[House] slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly…” (1 Peter 2:18-19).
But while right-wing evangelicals demand that evolution be removed from curriculums and Gay-Straight Alliances not be formed based on what “the Bible says,” they do not react with similar moral outrage to the fact that the “Underground Railroad,” an institution that promoted resistance to “earthly masters,” is glorified in many textbooks and history courses.
Another more despicable example of exegetical hypocrisy involves the Southern Baptist Convention’s blatantly sexist insistence that women be excluded from the clergy. They piously snubbed “the world” for condemning their misogynist theology, righteously proclaiming that “God’s Word” takes precedence over political correctness. They were quick to point out that the writer of 1 Timothy specifically says women are to be excluded from the ministry (2:11-12). What is shocking, however, is that they ignored 1 Timothy 2:9, which appears right above it and says, “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments…” But when the Southern Baptist Convention said that women should not be clergy, or that they should “submit graciously” to their husbands, did they also say that women should not wear gold, pearls or costly garments? This part of “God’s Word,” which is as plain and clear as the passage concerning women clergy was mysteriously excluded from the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution. Perhaps this commandment was ignored because if it were obeyed, the wives of rich evangelical televangelists could not flaunt their wealth so much.
In addition to the command concerning women’s dress in 1 Timothy, Paul has additional comments about women in the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:4 he says, “Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved….the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head…” The Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution was also silent about this Pauline command. Clearly the Southern Baptist Convention, like all right-wing evangelicals, “pick and choose” what passages they will and will not believe, while criticizing those that “pick and choose” what they will and will not believe in the Bible.
The discovery of double standards concerning the interpretation of the Bible only led me to reject right-wing evangelicalism. A more liberal form of evangelicalism was still, theoretically, an option. But I rejected Christianity outright because no pro-gay evangelical ever made the claim that anti-gay evangelicals did not have the Holy Spirit within them—and even if they did, I would not have believed them. No evangelical who believed that women should, in fact, be clergy said that those who disagreed with them were not “true Christians.” And no pro-gay evangelical or evangelical supportive of women clergy could explain how right-wing Christians, who had the omnipotent Holy Spirit and the resources of that which created the universe residing within them could get away with such brazen-faced interpretative hypocrisy and hubris without “conviction.” To me, the only logical conclusion was that the Holy Spirit is a figment of the Christian imagination, which, at least in any objective sense, does not really exist.
In essence, what prompted me to reject the evangelical religion was the evangelical. They are self-righteous and condescending to those who do not completely obey the Bible and to those who ignore certain parts of the Bible, and to those who reinterpret the “plain sense” of particular biblical passages, when they are guilty of the same things. After seeing this, I realized that I cannot, nor can I ever be associated with a religion whose very existence is characterized by hypocrisy and double standards.