The recent “conversation” as to whether faith-based schools should be permitted by law to discriminate against gay boys and girls, or against teachers who belong to the LGBT cohort, has resulted in a magnificent own-goal scored by so-called liberal conservative politicians and their ecclesiastical lobbyists. Another victory to the forces of evil! It’s so embarrassing to see just how out of touch some of our leaders, political and religious, have become.
But this recent conversation could be the opportunity to examine an even more fundamental question. Perhaps it’s time for believers to review the faith-basis of their condemnation of homosexual relationships and activities? How do faith-people go about establishing the mind of God on this question? Or any other? Where to find the proof that God would want those who believe in him (I say “him” simply for convenience) to discriminate against a cohort of his own cherished creatures?
Many of us were challenged to consider this faith-based question when we were corralled, against our wishes, into voting for or against the marriage of gay couples. As it turned out, perhaps as a terrifying surprise and bitter blow to the religious leaders of our society, a majority of believers voted, along with their non-believing brothers and sisters, in favour of gay marriage. I was one of them. Maybe, just maybe, God’s will is being revealed, not through the elite, but by those little people at the bottom of the hierarchical heap.
Perhaps it’s time for people of faith to look more closely at our accepted sources of faith and divine revelation, at the Book to which all Christian believers refer. For example, Paul told his followers (and through them, all believers) that acquiring a wife was God’s answer to the problem of fornication.
In towns like Thessaloniki or Corinth at the time when Paul was preaching his message, pre-marital sex, adulterous pleasures and regular visitations to local brothels were considered normal for warm-blooded males. Perhaps if one was inclined to be critical, this boys’-only activity was thought to be only a minor offence – mere peccadillos. When appointing a governor, for example, Alexander Serverus was accustomed to provide him with horses and servants, and, if he was unmarried, with a concubine, “because” as the historian Lampridius observed, “it was impossible that he could exist without one.” Paul’s thought they should all be married.
The sexual morality among the young believing males of the colony at Thessaloniki continued to be somewhat “irregular”, and Paul was not happy. He told them that God wanted each of them to keep away from fornication and that God wanted them to know how to acquire a wife – the metaphor he used for wife was the Greek word skeuos which literally translates as “container”, “receptacle” or “utensil”. It was used in Greco-Roman times to refer to kitchen utensils, or to the accoutrements of war, or to the tackle associated with ships – sails and ropes, And from the Babylonian Talmud we can conclude it was common figure of speech in the Jewish culture for a man’s wife to be referred to as “skeuos”.
This metaphor of a skeuos, a utensil, a container to denote a man’s wife seems to be a particularly brutal literary device, perhaps confronting to a modern reader, some might now think rather crass. No wonder some of the modern translations of the text in Paul’s letter are more discreet – less offensive.
There are a number of sub-meanings for the metaphor as it referred to a man’s wife. She could be, for example, the container in which the embryo was planted, a type of oven in which the fetus was cooked. But Paul’s meaning seems to suggest that the wife could be the receptacle or sheath into which the husband planted his member in order to produce an off-spring, or to assuage his natural, sexual drives. According to him, “acquiring” a wife could be the substitute which God provided to remedy man’s need to fornicate.
No modern believer, even the most pious, the most unworldly wise, the most conservative would/could countenance a woman, his wife or any other female, being described as a receptacle or utensil in any sense, even as a metaphor, or accept for a minute that a wife is the property of her partner, and inferior to him simply because the mythical Eve was born after the creation of the mythical Adam.
So in what sense can a believer accept that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is the inspired word of God? Did God really want a man to acquire a vessel as a solution to his need to satisfy his sexual urges? In reading the sacred books, how far does God’s inspiration extend? To the letter, or the phrase, to any phrase or paragraph? To every aspect of the written word? Does a believer have no room to move? Is it an all-or-nothing choice? What are the rules of biblical interpretation? Does a believer’s faith demand that he/she has to swallow everything, or can he react responsibly, choose conscientiously, judge reasonably and on reading the sacred text, exercise his God-given power of understanding and wisdom?
Maybe in the name of God, both Moses and Paul did condemn the practice of homosexuality as we know it (though some trained exegetes and scholars seriously question this), but they were living in a pre-scientific world. They would have had no notion that some people could be born with same-sex attractions. The Greco-Roman world held, along with many other weird tenets, that a woman was a misbegotten male, and that some fetuses were like cakes which had not been properly cooked and turned out to be only female – inferior and of lesser value. In Paul’s time, they had no idea as to why some men (and women too) were attracted to people of the same-sex, or why some men wanted to dress up as women, or even transgender themselves. The biological sciences had not been invented. There was no such body of scientific knowledge as psychology or any psychiatrists practicing in Corinth or Thessaloniki. He was fumbling around in the dark. Paul’s world was ruled by faith, by tradition and by prejudices, by religious leaders, by prophets (true and false ones), by fortune-tellers and magicians. It was a different world.
No contemporary believer can accept without question, without a further hard look behind the sacred texts, what they have been told about Paul’s hostile attitude to gays and lesbians – and as far as we know, Jesus never uttered one word, for or against, on the subject. The recent conversation provides a perfect opportunity to re-visit the faith-basis of the official hard-line, faith-based attitudes to same-sex issues. In any event, on this question the pews seem to be in furious disagreement with the pulpit.
Chris Geraghty, theologian, former priest and former judge of the District Court of NSW, now living in gentle retirement with too much time on his hands. His most recent book is entitled Jesus- the Forgotten Feminist.