In a recent lecture, a professing evangelical pastor in the UK, Steve Chalke argued1 that ancient erotic art from Pompeii, an ancient Roman town buried by a volcanic eruption in AD 79, shows that “New Testament verses that are used routinely to label same-sex activity as sinful were, in fact” not doing so.
Christians “Throw Bible Verses Around Without . . . Context”
Chalke reportedly asserted that “because of widespread ignorance of the ancient world and Graeco-Roman culture in churches across the West, we throw Bible verses around without understanding their context.” These pieces of explicit artwork supposedly provide the context to show that the New Testament is “condemning the abusive and exploitative sexual activity common in the world that Paul’s recipients lived in” rather than forbidding “faithful gay relationships” among Christians.
Chalke went on to say,
Every Christian believes God to be a God of love. It is no wonder that these abusive practices are condemned by inspired scripture. But it is a disingenuous misreading of the text to conclude that what Paul describes in Romans 1 can be used to prevent people forming loving, faithful, and nurturing relationships with people of the same-sex. . . .
In Evangelical circles, there has been a lack of intellectualism, which has meant that we’ve not dealt with these biblical passages as we should. . . . Some biblical scholarship just has not kept up with archaeological discovery; it’s not kept up with wider cultural research and understanding.
He reportedly claimed that traditional understandings of the biblical text are “driven more by ‘prejudice’ than by any real ‘grappling with the New Testament passages,’” causing these passages to become “‘weaponised’ and “used to destroy LGBT people and their lives and their credibility and their sense of peace.’”
Was Paul Merely Condemning Sexual Abuses?
I would like to address several of Chalke’s statements. Let’s start with his main point—the idea that an understanding of the sexual and even homosexual promiscuity and abuses of the era show that Paul wasn’t condemning faithful, loving gay relationships, but was instead exclusively condemning sexual abuses. There are some major problems with this idea.
If Paul was indeed only condemning promiscuous and abusive gay relationships, for example in Romans 1 (the text Chalke references), why was he not more clear about that? Nowhere in the text does Paul specify that those are the exact kind of gay relationships—and the only kind of gay relationships—he is referencing. In fact, a plain reading of the text—even with the backdrop of Roman promiscuity and abuse in mind—suggests no such thing. Romans 1 makes it clear that the “dishonorable passions” of women lying with women and men being “consumed with passion” for one another and committing “shameless acts” is wrong and deserves “the due penalty for their error.”
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:26–28)
Chalke is claiming that Christian thought for 2,000 years has misunderstood what Paul is saying. This means that Scripture is hardly clear on the topic, and we can only understand it when we combine God’s Word with archaeology and a modern understanding of history. This is subjecting the clear meaning of Scripture to a higher authority—archaeology, history, and man’s ideas—and calling into question the perspicuity of Scripture.
It’s worth noting that, if Chalke is right, Christians have misunderstood the text for 2,000 years and now are properly interpreting what Paul meant when—and only when—the culture is urging the church to accept gay “marriage” and homosexual behavior. Coincidence? I think not. It’s much more likely that Chalke and others who condone homosexual behavior are reading their ideas into the text and making it say what they want it to say.
And what about the Old Testament? It’s pretty difficult to argue that when God says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22) he actually means that only abusive or promiscuous gay relationships are an abomination to him. The text is 100% clear—homosexual behavior is an abomination to the Lord.
Chalke ignores that God clearly designed marriage to be between one man and one woman (Genesis 1:27, 2:24), and he tries to explain away the fact that this was affirmed by Jesus (Matthew 19:4–5). He also ignores that nowhere in Scripture do we see homosexual behavior portrayed in a positive light, described as God’s design for us, or permitted in any fashion for Christians.
Chalke and others like him approach Scripture with the belief that homosexual behavior is acceptable, and they mold Scripture to fit their beliefs. This is hardly letting Scripture speak to them and shape their thoughts and actions. It’s putting their own wisdom and ideas above God and his Word and teaching others to do the same. I would encourage Chalke to soberly consider these passages of Scripture,
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
Is God Only a God of Love?
We hear this same argument, or something very similar to it, over and over again: “Every Christian believes God to be a God of love.” Many people seem to believe that because God is a God of love—which he certainly is (1 John 4:8)—he can’t also be a God of justice, of holiness, and of standards. They seem to think that being a God of love means that God will accept our behavior if we are supposedly acting out of love. But let’s apply this train of thought to some other sexual sins.
- God is a God of love, so my adultery is acceptable because I love my secretary instead of my wife.
- God is a God of love, so having two wives is fine with him.
- God is a God of love, and I love my girlfriend, so God approves of my sleeping with her before we’re married.
Just because God is a God of love doesn’t mean he isn’t also a God of justice, holiness, and standards.
Just because God is a God of love doesn’t mean he isn’t also a God of justice, holiness, and standards. As our Creator, only God has the right to tell us what is right and wrong—and he has clearly revealed this for us in his Word. Adultery, polygamy, and fornication are all wrong because they go against God’s design for marriage and his commands to us (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4–5; 1 Corinthians 6:18–20; Hebrews 13:4). And homosexuality is wrong for the exact same reasons.
The message Chalke and other professing Christians should be giving is the message that God is a God of love because he sent his one and only Son to earth (John 3:16) to take the penalty that we deserve—death—upon himself to satisfy God’s righteous wrath against sin (Romans 5:9). Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can receive forgiveness for all our sins and have purpose-filled temporal and eternal life in Christ (Romans 10:9; 2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s the true message of God’s love for us!
A Lack of Intellectualism?
Chalke claimed that there’s been “a lack of intellectualism, which has meant that we’ve not dealt with these biblical passages as we should,” but instead our understandings of the text are “driven more by ‘prejudice’ than by any real ‘grappling with the New Testament passages.’”
Basically, he is saying that if you won’t and don’t agree with his interpretation of these texts, you haven’t grappled with them. Indeed, it is Chalke who hasn’t really grappled with these texts because he’s just interpreted them to match with his preconceived notions about homosexual behavior rather than honestly addressing what the texts clearly state.
Chalke said that because we haven’t kept up with archaeology and “with [the] wider cultural research and understanding,” we don’t properly interpret the text. But the archaeology Chalke mentions in his talk doesn’t prove that Paul was only addressing sexual abuses—it merely shows that the people of Pompeii were sexually and homosexually promiscuous and celebrated it. It doesn’t change the fact that Paul describes homosexual relations—with no qualifiers—as a deviation from God’s design and an “error.”
Interpreting God’s Word through the lens of the “wider cultural research and understanding” is dangerous.
And, furthermore, interpreting God’s Word through the lens of the “wider cultural research and understanding” is dangerous. It leads to an exaltation of man’s ideas over God’s Word. And it changes God’s Word from being “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) for all generations (Psalm 119:89) to changing with the whims and fancies of the sinful world. But Paul, through the Holy Spirit, specifically warns about being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).
“Weaponizing” God’s Word?
Chalke claimed that those who take God’s Word as it was written have “weaponized” it and used passages to “destroy LGBT people and their lives and their credibility and their sense of peace.” Weaponized is an interesting word choice, considering what the Bible says about itself:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
The Bible is not a feel-good book all about love and harmony. It calls out sin and commands us to repent. It tells us what is right and what is not. It’s a double-edged sword that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, convicts and calls us to a higher standard of living. Christians don’t make God’s Word a weapon—it is a weapon against sin! As Christians, we must graciously and lovingly use God’s Word to point out the truth and allow Scripture to do its job of convicting and pointing towards Christ. This isn’t a means of destroying the lives, credibility, and peace of others. This is a way of pointing people towards the truth and the freedom from slavery to sin that comes from following Christ and obeying his Word with all our heart by the power of the Spirit at work within us.
We Must Stand Firmly on the Word
It’s discouraging to see professing evangelicals, like Chalke, cave to the cultural pressure to accept and celebrate sinful behaviors. Instead of basing our thinking on what the culture tells us, we need to start our thinking with the unchanging, sure foundation of God’s Word. And part of that means calling homosexual behavior what it is—sin—and pointing people toward the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.2