Listening to the reading at Mass last week from Ephesians, Margery heard St. Paul say, “Slaves be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling.” The priest explained that times were different back then, and St. Paul was not really condoning slavery. Slavery was a reality in the ancient world, and Paul was a man of his time. We know better now.
Hearing all this, again, I was left with my perpetual question. In Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy 1, Paul also condemns homosexuality. And those letters, too, have been quoted throughout Christian history to justify treating gay men and woman differently, even to reject them. So how is it that we don’t hear the same “different time” explainers about Paul and homosexuals? How is it that the Church has found a way to discount and dismiss what Paul said repeatedly about slaves, but not discount and dismiss what he said repeatedly about homosexuals?
I don’t have the answer. I simply ask the question.
On face value, it is a fair question, and it’s refreshing to hear a person in the pew not only listen carefully to the readings from Sacred Scripture, but to think them through and come back with an honest question.
Margery doesn’t have an answer. Maybe I can help.
Firstly, plenty of people do make this “different time” argument, and not just about homosexuality. The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, used this argument when debating women’s ordination. In 1 Timothy 2:12, St. Paul says, “I do not allow a woman to teach a man or to hold authority over him in church. She should be quiet.” When opponents of women’s ordination used this verse to defend their position, Carey waved it away, saying, “We know more now about gender roles than they did back then.”
Carey’s problem was that he wanted to disregard Paul and ordain women, while at the same time hold out against the homosexual lobby. But they used the same argument to support the ordination of practicing homosexuals and same-sex marriage. Did Carey and others object? Was St. Paul against such things? “We know more about human sexuality than they did back then,” was the reply.
So the first answer to Margery’s question is, “The argument you make is not new. The Anglicans and other mainstream Protestants have been making the argument for years.”
The problem with the “different time” argument is that it is a blunt instrument. It can be used to relativize Scripture completely, so if someone doesn’t like this or that they say, “Geesh, that was then. This is now.” We must consider questions of different cultures and different time periods, but these are not the main lines of reasoning when interpreting Scripture.
The other problem with the “different time” argument (and the reason Catholics don’t use it) is because it reveals a Protestant mindset about the Bible — as if the Bible is the only authority, and that it is no more than a book of doctrines or a book of regulations.
The Bible is not simply a list of rules and regulations to be followed, nor is it a list of doctrines to be believed. It is the record of God’s relationship with his people. While there are particular commands and regulations written down in particular cultures and time periods, the main things we look for are the overarching principles and the underlying theology. The idea is not so much to glean particular dictums or dictates, but to understand the whole wisdom of God for mankind.
Other basic rules of Biblical interpretation say that we do not take verses out of context, nor do we argue a position from one verse or a handful of verses alone. Scripture interprets Scripture. We weigh up not only the whole of one author’s writings, but what the whole of Scripture teaches.
Finally, Catholics are not “Bible only” Christians. We believe the Sacred Scriptures are the inspired record of the acts of God in Christ as lived by his Church. The Scriptures come from the Church and are interpreted by the Church. Therefore it is to the Church’s magisterium that we turn for the final interpretation.
Considering these rules of interpretation, let’s consider the question at hand: St. Paul seems to condone slavery and condemn homosexuality. We reject his acceptance of slavery due to historical differences in culture, why not reject his condemnation of homosexuality if times have changed?
First, if we are concerned with historical context, we should learn what slavery was like in ancient Rome. We think of slavery as Africans wearing chains, picking cotton, being watched by a white man with a whip. This article explains that slavery in the Roman times was considerably different. It’s worth a read.
While we read that St Paul expects slaves to obey their masters, his understanding of the matter is more complex. Rather than just giving slavery the nod and moving on, he tells masters that they should regard their slaves as brothers. In the Book of Philemon, he instructs Philemon to treat the slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ (Philemon 16). Paul tells masters to treat slaves with justice and fairness (Col. 4:1) and not to threaten them (Eph 6:9). All these are practical instructions for Christian living, but in his theology, Paul lays the seeds of the abolition of slavery. Through baptism, we are equal in the sight of God. In Galatians 3:28 he teaches, “For all of you who were baptized in Christ … there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free … but all are one in Christ.”
St. Paul’s treatment of slavery, then, can be summarized thus: “Slaves should obey their masters, but masters must treat them as brothers in the Lord, for in Christ there is no slave or free.” While the fact of slavery is accepted, St. Paul sees that in Christ, the chains of slavery are broken. The eventual abolition of slavery is therefore present in seed form in the teaching of St. Paul. This is a clear example of the right kind of development of doctrine — in which a final understanding blossoms forth from a seed that was planted in the first place in the New Testament.
If Margery’s preacher simply said, “We don’t have slavery now because we know more than Paul did back then,” he was not a very profound preacher. We have not abolished slavery because “we know more than Paul did back then,” but because the abolition of slavery was present within Paul’s attitude to slavery from the beginning. Our present position is therefore not a contradiction of St. Paul or a dismissal of his teachings, but a fulfillment of them.
Now let’s compare Paul’s teaching about slavery and his teaching about homosexuality.
In the case of slavery, Paul was condoning the status quo. In the case of homosexuality he was condemning the status quo. There is a big difference.
To put it simply, his attitude to slavery is, “We accept it as a reality, but slaves should be treated fairly because deep down they are our brothers, and in Christ, there is no slave or free.” The fulfillment of Paul’s whole teaching is that slavery is abolished. If his attitude to homosexuality were comparable, he would say, “Homosexuality is a reality in this society. We condemn it, but we know one day that loving, long-term homosexual relationships will be accepted as an alternative kind of marriage.”
However, St. Paul’s theology nowhere suggests an eventual acceptance of homosexuality. His condemnation is absolute. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, homosexuality is condemned in the strongest language.
As with the slavery issue, we must consider the theological background in Paul’s teaching. In the case of slavery, Paul’s underlying theological background plants the seed for slavery’s abolition. Paul’s theological background for homosexuality is found in Romans 1, where he sees homosexuality as the fruit of a deeper rebellion against God and the natural order. He says it is a form of sensual idolatry, pride, and self-love.
In other words, St. Paul’s underlying theology leads to a greater abhorrence of homosexuality for a deeper reason — there is no seed planted which might lead to an eventual acceptance of homosexual actions; instead, the opposite is true: Homosexuality is seen as the result of a profound rejection of God and the natural order.
Finally, Catholic Church teaching is always reliant not only on Scripture, but on an integration of Catholic truth with natural law. From Augustine through Aquinas, theologians have argued that natural law is against slavery because, both in creation and in Christ, all are equal. The same reasoning has always and everywhere held that homosexual actions are contrary to natural law and cannot be condoned or accepted.
Homosexual activists may disagree with St. Paul and the Catholic Church, and they may make their arguments, but the short answer to Margery’s question is: We are not “disagreeing” with St. Paul. Instead, the fullest understanding of St. Paul’s teaching leads to the abolition of slavery and the condemnation of homosexual activity.
Should St. Paul’s underlying principle that “in Christ all are brothers” and “in baptism all are equal” be applied to homosexual persons?
Should they be treated with respect and accepted with dignity?
Of course. The Catechism already teaches that. Homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”