Bible doesn't condemn gays, but ancient Roman debauchery - Rev. Steve Chalke

"Paul is writing into a sex, promiscuity, pornography drenched society and he's talking about how to live the way of Christ, the way of Jesus, how to have a different ethic than that. So he's not talking about long-term, faithful same-sex relationships at all!" says Rev. Steve Chalke
Satyr and nymph. Roman mosaic from the cubiculum in the Casa del Fauno in Pompeii. (Wolfgang Rieger via Wikimedia Commons)

"Even if Christian scholars (or some of them, I should say) won't read this in context, the rest of the world is. Do you know, the church doesn't own the Bible! It doesn't own the New Testament. The New Testament is studied now by historians, and politicians, and sociologists. It's studied by philosophers. It's a source document of life in the first century. And if Biblical scholarship doesn't want to keep up with the wider world of academia, it's always going to be misleading people." - Steve Chalke

Scroll down to watch Steve Chalke's lecture on Understanding The New Testament and Sexuality below. Warning: mature themes and images.

Reverend Steve Chalke

Context is important. Especially when you're examining sacred texts. For example, assertions about what the Bible says about sex have had a huge - and at times damaging - effect on society. Where passages about sexual morality run up against the lives of gay people, there's a lot of painful friction.

Steve Chalke is a British Baptist minister whose charitable work has earned him honours from Queen Elizabeth II. He's been a Special Advisor to the United Nations on the issue of human trafficking.  And lately he's been taking a closer look at St. Paul's writings, while pointing to Pompeii as an example of ancient Roman culture.  He says that the so-called 'clobber passages' in the letters of St. Paul that are used as proof of the immorality of LGBT relationships have become like sound bites, taken out of context. And what is that context?

Chalke says: "Paul is writing into a sex, promiscuity, pornography drenched society and he's talking about how to live the way of Christ, the way of Jesus, how to have a different ethic than that. So he's not talking about long-term, faithful same-sex relationships at all!"

Erotic Scene from the eastern side of the southern wall of the Lupanar. Roman fresco in Pompeii. (Wolfgang Rieger, Wikimedia Commons)

Chalke says that not only was it permissible for Roman citizens to have sexual 'slaves' of both sexes outside of marriage; it was expected.  And often, these were exploitative relationships with non-Roman citizens; slaves, gladiators, refugees, oppressed people, political prisoners, prisoners of war.

"And so [St. Paul's] just saying when you give up the 'natural relationships' that you have with people, and you go in for this promiscuous lifestyle, which was all linked into pagan religions - Roman religious cults - you're giving up the way of life that's best for you."

Here's where Pompeii comes in. That city, and its sister city, Herculaneum, frozen in time around the year 79 CE after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, are full of erotic art depicting a wide variety of sexual encounters, in brothels and in baths. These archaeological sites date to only a couple of decades after St. Paul wrote his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians.

If it is demonstrable that St. Paul had no intention of condemning same-sex relationships in his writings, but that he was arguing for a love that is reflective of the faithfulness of God, then what are the consequences for a church that has long discriminated against LGBT people?

Chalke says these errors are part of a pattern, where Christian ignorance or prejudice has led to misinterpretation of scripture with damaging effect: he cites racist readings of the Bible, which were eventually used to excuse slavery in the British Empire, in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa.  He says that the shame and the pain that the church has caused in the name of sexual morality has to be addressed.

"Yeah, we do need to repent of - to use a strong word - do more than apologize, we need to weep over our abuse of people in the name of the text of the Bible. It's clear to me that any doctrine, any theory, any practice, any theology that flies in the face of the central statement of the bible, that 'God is love', is decidedly dodgy from the outset," says Chalke.

What are the Clobber Passages?

Romans 1:26–27

'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.'

Steve Chalke argues that Paul is addressing idolatry, promiscuity and shrine prostitution - not same-sex relationships between faithful and committed partners.

1 Corinthians 6:9–11

'Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.'

This is one of the most hurtful, and misused passages that Christians have often used against LGBTQ people. Chalke says that this passage is clearly about the gross misuse of power and abusing others. 

1 Timothy 1:9–10

'This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching…'

Chalke points out the full list of sins here to place it in context with the known lifestyle of Roman debauchery, sexual permissiveness and abuse, and says this has nothing to do with loving same-sex relationships.

Click Listen above to hear Steve Chalke address the 'clobber passages' directly, and to hear him describe the cost of shame from the perspective of a minister.