Calling Good Evil (Part 4)

Herb Montgomery | March 22, 2019

Gaius Caligula

“If Brownson is correct and Paul is referring to Gaius Caligula’s actual behavior, which Paul’s contemporaries, Philo, Dio Cassius, and Dio Chrysostom all wrote about with similar language, then he is describing harmful behavior that most LGBTQ people would condemn alongside most straight, cisgender people.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

As we continue this series this week, we’ll look at a passage that Christians have used in harmful and destructive ways against the Christian and non-Christian LBGTQ communities: Romans 1. 

I want to begin with the basic understanding that the culture in which Paul wrote this passage was one where the earth was thought to be at the center of the universe. That culture knew nothing of germ theory. It held women as of lesser than men. It practiced slavery as morally and ethically innocent. And it knew nothing of what we understand today as a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Paul’s society assumed everyone was born what we’d call today “straight,” and they thought that gender was binary and static. 

Matthew Vines tells us how Paul’s society, therefore, viewed same sex relations: “The fact that societies of the biblical world associated same-sex relations with sexual excess rather than sexual orientation has been conceded even by a number of non-affirming scholars” (God and the Gay Christian, p. 38). 

If we are going to interpret Paul’s words in Romans 1 without harming those who are demonstrably different from cisgender, heterosexual people, we must first understand that Paul’s society assumed all people naturally possessed a straight orientation and same-sex relations could only result from straight people with out-of-control lust being satisfied by different-sex and same-sex sexual acts. Again, this society had no understanding, as we have today, of humanity’s ability to naturally possesses other orientations. Today we know that humanity can also naturally possess lesbian, gay or bisexual orientations which do not in the least bit imply the simultaneous possession out-of-control lust or what we might call today a sex addiction. Out-of-control lust can occur within all orientations.  And I have bisexual friends today that practice a more holistic, non-objectifying, values based, humanizing sexual ethic than do a lot of my “straight” friends.

With this in mind, let’s begin.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 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 were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:20-32)

At this point I want to turn to Brownson’s work on this text. His evidence for what may be lying behind this passage has resonated the most with me. He writes:

“We see a similar connection between idolatry and excessive lust and perversion in the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish apocryphal text dating from a period not long before Paul’s writings. 

‘For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life. . . . For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.’ (Wisdom 14:12, 23-28)

(Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 154)

The fact that these authors tie idolatry to objectifying lust is telling. As we continue, ask yourself: is what Paul could have been writing about even remotely related to committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex relationships then or today? Paul’s culture viewed same-sex relations as conducted by straight people going against their natural, straight orientation because of insatiable sexual lust. 

Brownson offers more evidence from Roman orator Chrysostom:

“The Roman orator Dio Chrysostom, for example, who wrote shortly after Paul’s time, speaks of same-sex eroticism as the manifestation of insatiable lust: The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given — in fact, too utterly feminine — and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. His state is like that of men who are addicted to drinking and wine-bibbing, who after long and steady drinking of unmixed wine, often lose their taste for it and create an artificial thirst by the stimulus of sweating, salted foods, and condiments.” (Ibid., pp. 154-155)

So far, what Paul is describing looks nothing like committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex relationships aligned with whichever orientation one naturally posseses.

But the example that forever changed how I read Romans 1 is the story of Gaius Caligula, a Roman emperor whose excesses and lust fit Paul’s description in Romans 1 perfectly. 

Please forgive the length of this next passage from Brownson. I want you to get the whole story. Content note: this story contains graphic sexual violence, including rape and forced same-sex relations as entertainment.

“Neil Elliott has called attention to the striking similarities between Paul’s language and the incredible greed, violence, and sexual excesses of Gaius Caligula, an emperor who reigned in a period not too long before Paul wrote Romans. First of all, Gaius is closely linked to the practice of idolatry. The Roman writer Suetonius reports how Gaius 

‘set up a special temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind.’ 

Another Roman writer, Dio Cassius, comments negatively on how Gaius was the only emperor to claim to be divine and to be the recipient of worship during his own lifetime. Gaius also tried at one point to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem; he was dissuaded only by a delegation from Herod Agrippa. Hence the link between Gaius and idolatry would have been well-known indeed, particularly in Jewish circles. 

But Gaius also serves as “Exhibit A” for out-of-control lust. Suetonius reports how Gaius 

‘lived in perpetual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above’.

He records gruesome examples of Gaius’s arbitrary violence, vindictiveness, and cruelty. Later, Suetonius chronicles Gaius’s sexual liaisons with the wives of dinner guests, raping them in an adjoining room and then returning to the banquet to comment on their performance. Various same-sex sexual encounters between Gaius and other men are similarly recounted. Finally, a military officer whom he had sexually humiliated joined a conspiracy to murder him, which they did less than four years into his reign. Suetonius records that Gaius was stabbed through the genitals when he was murdered. One wonders whether we can hear an echo of this gruesome story in Paul’s comments in Romans 1:27: 

‘Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own person the due penalty for their error.’ 

Gaius Caligula graphically illustrates the reality of which Paul speaks in Romans 1: the movement from idolatry to insatiable lust to every form of depravity, and the violent murderous reprisal that such behavior engenders. 

Interestingly, Elliott notes how the Jewish writer Philo writes in similarly scathing terms of the evils of Gaius Caligula, interpreting his depravity as the result of his refusal to honor God, and his death as a manifestation of divine justice. This suggests that Gaius’s excesses and the divine judgment incurred by them were a common theme that would have been familiar to many Jews in the ancient world.”

(Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, pp. 156-158).

If Brownson is correct and Paul is referring to Gaius Caligula’s actual behavior, which Paul’s contemporaries, Philo, Dio Cassius, and Dio Chrysostom all wrote about with similar language, then he is describing harmful behavior that most LGBTQ people would condemn alongside most straight, cisgender people. Like everyone else in his society, Paul knew nothing of what we refer to today as someone’s sexual orientation. The only instances of same-sex relations that Paul wrote about were rooted in Gaius’ violent lustfulness. Gaius’ narrative doesn’t even remotely represent the numberless committed, faithful, consensual, loving same-sex couples whose love—not lust—was forcibly hidden for their own safety from straight, cisgender people like me.

The violating behavior of Gaius Caligula should be rightly condemned. And still I have yet to meet a Christian LGBTQ person or couple who even remotely resembles what we have read about this week. 

Do we have the courage to admit our interpretations have been wrong? Can we own up when our interpretations have done demonstrable bodily harm to a group of humans born different than others? Do we have the courage to let go of those damaging interpretations and make them give way to life-giving interpretations instead? 

We have much to ponder this week. We also have much to apologize for.

I hoping to conclude next week as we consider one more New Testament passage and then return to the Genesis story.

For now, remember:

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)


HeartGroup Application

This week I want to ask you, as a group, to discuss your progress on last week’s HeartGroup Application.  You were to make a list of ways you, as a group, can be more inclusive of those others are excluding and then begin putting them into practice.

  1. How were you successful this week?
  2. How were you not successful this week?
  3. Looking at both of the above, what can you do better this week?

Next week will be our last installment in this series and I’ll have a very special offer for our HeartGroups to engage more deeply in the work of creating safe spaces. Until then, I’m so glad you’re still with us along this journey. Together we can shape our society into a safe, compassionate, just home for all.

Where you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Calling Good Evil (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | March 15, 2019

Picture of ripples from a droplet in a rainbow colored pond.
Photo Credit: Jordan McDonald on Unsplash

“Using the term ‘homosexual’ in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read ‘pederasty.’ One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us.”


“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

This week we’re continuing our look at passages that Christians have typically interpreted and used in ways that harm LGBTQ people and others. There are a myriad of ways to interpret the passages we are considering in this series, so I want to remind us to continue asking ourselves, what is the fruit of how I interpret these passages? Are my interpretations doing harm or are my interpretations life giving? As Jesus said, “No good tree [or interpretation] bears bad fruit.”

A few years back, I listened to a presentation by Justin Lee where he mentioned Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Lee brought up Noll’s book because of the striking similarities between the theological crisis slavery and the abolition movement brought to Christianity in America and today’s schisms caused by churches’ refusal to recognize, include, embrace, and celebrate Christians who identify as LGBTQ. The United Methodist Church’s recent decisions are just one example. Immediately after listening to Lee, I purchased Noll’s book and was shocked at how similar the arguments for and against abolition were to today’s arguments for and against inclusion of LGBTQ Christians as members and as clergy in the Christian church. 

Noll writes: 

“Nuanced biblical attacks on American slavery faced rough going precisely because they were nuanced. This position could not simply be read out of any one biblical text; it could not be lifted directly from the page. Rather, it needed patient reflection on the entirety of the Scriptures; it required expert knowledge of the historical circumstances of ancient Near Eastern and Roman slave systems as well as of the actually existing conditions in the slave states; and it demanded that sophisticated interpretative practice replace a commonsensically literal approach to the sacred text.” (Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 49)

As we turn to the New Testament passages under our consideration, we too must pay attention to nuance. We must do more than engage in surface readings of passages that too easily can be interpreted through our own unseen biases. We need not throw out our sacred text. We must simply learn to look more deeply at passages in their context and in our context today to arrive at life-giving interpretations. 

This is keenly true of our first two passages.

1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The term “homosexuality,” though invented in the late 1800s, did not appear in any Bible before 1946. This is significant. As I argued last week, the passages in the Hebrew scriptures that Christians typically associate with loving same-sex relationships were not addressing same-sex attraction as we understand it today. Christians for most of history read these two New Testament passages very differently than those translated recently.

I want you to see the progression in translations. 

King James Version (1611):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 

1 Timothy 1:10: For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

Revised English Bible (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Surely you know that wrongdoers will never possess the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, no adulterer or sexual pervert. 

1 Timothy 1:10: And fornicators, perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers—in fact all whose behaviour flouts the sound teaching

The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate. We’ve seen that the passages in the Hebrew scriptures usually associated with our topic are actually referring to sexual violence that men used to terrorize or dehumanize other men in times of war. Brownson also reveals that these two passages were not speaking of what we call homosexuality today, but were describing the abusive Roman practice of pederasty (sex between an older man and a young boy): sex with a minor, which would today be condemned as rape by the LGBTQ community.

“[Arsenokoitai] is particularly problematic because there is no attested usage of this word preceding the New Testament documents — that is, in extrabiblical literature — that might provide additional information about its range of meaning. But the most important thing to recognize is that there are two words, not just one. Most scholars recognize that the presence of these two words reflects widespread assumptions throughout the ancient world about male-male homosexual activity: almost all the documents discussing male same-sex eroticism assume a distinction between active older men (commonly referred to in Greek as erastai) and passive younger males (commonly referred to as erōmenoi) — in other words, the practice of pederasty. The malakoi (“ softies”) are the younger, passive erōmenoi, and the arsenokoitai (“ man-bedders”) are the older, active erastai. (James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, p. 274, emphasis added.)

Brownson concludes on the next page:

“But when we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Ibid., p. 275.)

After 1946, though, there is an obvious homophobic bias in New Testament translations that is not warranted by the original languages. Where the original languages address sexual and power violations between an adult and a child, i.e. injustice, we begin to see after 1946 generic homophobia instead.

Here are a few examples from more contemporary translations:

New International Version (2011):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

Notice how in the NIV the wording is “men who have sex with men.” The pederasty reference in the original language is completely and, with bias, ignored.

New American Standard  (1960):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 

1 Timothy 1:10: and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 

Today’s New International Version (2005):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals

1 Timothy 1:10: for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

New Revised Standard Version (1989):

1 Corinthians 6:9: Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 

1 Timothy 1:10: fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching.

We’ve considered what was really happening in the ancient Sodom story. The term “sodomites” used in the New Revised Standard Version is a misnomer and betrays a heterosexist bias and the cultural normativity of our day. 

That’s the biggest point this week. Those who seek to interpret these Bible texts in more life-giving ways within the LGBTQ community are often accused of allowing the present culture to bias them. But what we see in the progression of translations over the last half-century is that translating 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 terms as homosexuality rather than pederasty allows contemporary cultural homophobia to bias the translations while completely ignoring the cultural context which these passages were originally intended for and written in. 

Using the term “homosexual” in these translations represents negative cultural bias. If these passages were free from homophobic bias, they would read “pederasty.” One must ask which interpretation is more culturally biased, and more so, what is the fruit of each interpretation? One produces demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings because they are born different. And that should warn us. 

In the Jesus story, some religious leaders (scribes, Sadducees, some Pharisees) taught interpretations of the Torah and practiced a kind of holiness that marginalized the most vulnerable. Jesus, like the prophets before him, instead valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of holiness that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. Even if, as a Christian, you deem same-sex attraction as condemned by your sacred text, you still have one grave reality staring back at you in the face: As a Jesus follower, why are the results, the fruits, of your interpretation so different from Jesus and so identical to those in the story who crucified Jesus? We must let this contradiction confront us.

Regardless of our claim, the fact that LGBTQ Christian youth have such a higher suicide rate in our Christian faith tradition, a rate that is increased by their being “Christian” and having been rejected by their religious families, a rate that is eight times higher rate than non-Christian youth who are accepted, all of this screams to us that in all our piety and holiness, we have imbibed more the spirit of those who stood in opposition to the Jesus of the story than we have the spirit of Jesus himself.

Being LGBTQ has not taken the life of one Christian gay young person, but our interpretations and the way we are relating to them has.

If sin is wrong because it produces death and does harm, and how we are to responding to our LGBTQ population is producing death, you have to ask where is the sin? First get the log out of your own eye, then you will see more clearly to get the dust out of someone else’s.

For the sake of every Christian LGBTQ young person who is struggling with this right now as I write, for the sake of every last phone call made and every effort engaged to talk someone back down off the ledge, it is time for change. 

If you are following Jesus, it’s time for change. Please don’t say you’re simply standing up for what is right. Those who rejected and crucified Jesus felt they were too. Jesus stood up to defend those who were being damaged by those who were standing up for what they interperated as right. It’s time that we and our Jesus looked more like the one in the story.

Next week, we’ll consider Romans 1.

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)

HeartGroup Application

First let me say, it’s good to be back.  While I have been traveling over the past few weeks, a lot has been happening in the Christian LGBTQ community in relation to the recent decisions made by the United Methodist Church.

It was a deeply disappointing to watch for many of us who were hoping for and even expecting a very different outcome. I’m encouraged personally to see how many within the Methodist tradition are standing their holy ground.  Churches who have been welcoming and affirming across the nation are choosing to be excluded on the basis of whom they include rather than included because of whom they exclude.

I would like your HeartGroup this week to sit down and discuss three ways your little group can become more welcoming and affirming, too. It’s never a bad time to become more inclusive of those others are marginalizing. As we have often discussed, Jesus modeled and practiced a preferential option for those others excluded. How can your group do the same. 

After you’ve listed three, make a timeline, and begin putting all three into practice.

Together we have the ability to be a source of change in our society. 

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.