By: Dr. Chuck Quarles (Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, SEBTS)
On February 11, Danny Cortez preached an hour-long sermon to the congregation of the New Hope Community Church. The title of the sermon was “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality.” In the sermon, Cortez argued that the clear prohibitions of homosexual conduct in the New Testament do not really apply today. He claimed that he attempted to immerse himself in ancient homoerotic literature “with a latte in hand.” In the process, he discovered that ancient homosexuality involved violence, abuse, and domination of a subordinate (boy, slave) by a superior (older man, master). By contrast, modern homosexuality is genuinely loving and does not involve such abuse. Using the New Testament to condemn homosexual conduct is wrongheaded. It is simply comparing apples to oranges.
Cortez is certainly right to oppose abuse. But he is wrong in claiming that this is the driving concern of Romans 1:26-27 and terribly wrong is his charge that the traditional Christian rejection of homosexuality is paramount to the very abuse that Paul condemned.
I am puzzled by Cortez’s portrayal of ancient homosexuality and by his interpretation of the New Testament. I admit that I have not chosen to immerse myself in ancient homoerotic literature like Pastor Cortez says that he has. On the other hand, I majored in Classics at a state university and remain a student of the history of the New Testament era preserved in the writings of the ancient Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius. Many ancient texts and quite a few ancient artifacts portray homosexuality in Paul’s time quite differently from what Cortez would lead us to believe.
To find an example of a homosexual who willingly adopted both dominant and passive roles in homosexual relationships, one need look no further than the infamous emperor Nero. He castrated a boy named Sporus (not to torture him but to prevent the onset of puberty and thus preserve Sporus’ femininity) and then publically married him in a ceremony with dowry, bridal veil, and all the trappings. After the wedding, Nero had Sporus dress as an empress and treated him in every way as one would a queen. But this is not the entire story. Later Nero later fell in love with an adult free man named Doryphorus and publicly married him. Yet this time Nero chose to act as the bride and have Doryphorus act as groom. Then Nero played the feminine role in their homosexual acts (Suetonius, Nero, 28). Suetonius portrays Nero’s relationship with these two men as characterized by genuine affection. Nero’s willingness to marry the men publically and confer royal privileges on them suggests that the relationship had remarkable similarities to the relationships of gay couples today. It certainly shows the fallacy in Cortez’s claim that in ancient homosexuality “The dominant would penetrate the passive, but it would never be reversed” (c. 36:00 mark).
One might also mention Aristotle’s description of the relationship between two Corinthian men. Aristotle described Philolaus, a famous philosopher and political thinker as “a lover of Diocles, the Olympic victor.” The two homosexual men lived together until the day that they died. They even chose to be buried side by side (Politics, Book 2). These are only two of a plethora of ancient depictions of homosexual relationships in the Greco-Roman world demonstrating that Cortez’s portrayal of such relationships is mistaken.
The error of Cortez’s argument should be obvious to any careful readers of Romans 2, even if they are not familiar with ancient descriptions of homosexuality. Cortez interprets the text as if Romans 1:27 referred to men committing shameful acts with boys or abusers performing shameful acts on victims. But Paul actually wrote: “Males committed shameful acts with males” (HCSB). The translation in the HCSB is very accurate and precise. The sexual act was a shameful act because it involved two people of the same gender, two males, and was thus a perversion of the Creator’s intention for sexual relationships (Gen. 2:24). Paul was not making assumptions about the act involving violence, abuse, or domination. The preceding statement in the verse actually implies that one male was not imposing his desires on another male, but rather the males “were inflamed in their lust for one another.” The reciprocal pronoun translated “for one another” implies mutual desire and reciprocity rather than violence, force, and abuse.
I share Cortez’s concern for comparing apples to oranges. Things that are vastly different should not be equated. When I consider Cortez’s interpretation of Romans 1 and then read what the Apostle wrote under the inspiration of God–that’s when I see apples and oranges. Cortez’s interpretation is vastly different from what Paul wrote. I suspect that the Apostle Paul would be appalled by it. I hope Southern Baptists will be too.