Slavery Not Sex

I was asked a few years ago to give a study on The Bible and Homosexuality at a retreat. The person who announced the topic decided to add these words, “This is a study that will show you the claim that God does not love you is false.” I was struck by those words. It really was not until then that I realized I was doing more than merely correcting erroneous information. My job in that context was to help restore or heal the relationship between certain people and their God. I had thought completing the hard work of study and interpretation was the goal. For the announcer and others, that work was important only in so far that it gave assurance that God in fact loved and accepted the one’s taking the class. I was not teaching. I was assisting the Physician in excising the cancerous tumor that plagued the class. I felt unprepared. I was not sure if I was ready to begin.

What follows is a portion of that study. This essay deals with St. Paul’s attitude toward  sexual slavery. I put forward the understanding that St. Paul the Apostle condemned slavery in no uncertain terms and sexual slavery in particular. Paul did not view homosexual acts as worthy of condemnation. He did view the domination ethic that allowed one person to use another merely for sexual purposes as out-of-bounds for people who sought “the peace of Christ” or “the kingdom of God.”

St. Luke in the Book of Acts tells us that Paul claimed Roman Citizenship. Not only did he lay claim to it but that he was born a citizen of the city of Rome (Acts 22:27-28). He uses his citizenship to escape a flogging, appeal to Caesar, and to shame those who flogged him in the past. The question remains how did Saul of Tarsus, a Jew, receive citizenship upon his birth? Evidently, his father was a Roman citizen. So, then, unless his father was a non-Jew, it is a good question still how a “hebrew of hebrews,” who was “descended from the tribe of Benjamin” get the citizenship to pass on to his son? The answer appears to lie in the early part of Acts before Saul is first mentioned. We read that St. Stephen, the first martyr after Christ, was disputing with members of “the synagogue of the Freedmen” that included members from Cilicia (the territory of Tarsus) and other areas (Acts 6:8-10). Saul later watches the cloaks of the men who stone Stephen and gives his assent to his lynching (Acts 8:1). This story brings up an often overlooked issue. Why is their such a synagogue in Jerusalem? Who are “the Freedmen?”

The Roman Empire was built on conquest and slavery. The economy of the Empire was based on slavery. It is understood that the majority class of the Empire was composed of slaves. Rome discouraged the liberation of slaves. The one reason for our purpose is that Roman law required that any freed slave be granted Roman citizenship. Slaves who became Freedmen received the privileges of their former masters. The synagogue of the Freedmen was the meeting place for Jewish persons who were former slaves or their descendants. St. Paul was born a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Cilicia. Saul was descended from Jewish slaves.

The early Christian community condemned slavery in various ways. The slave trade is condemned in the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:10, a letter attributed to St. Paul) and other early documents.  St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a subtle rebuke of a Christian practicing slavery. Onesimus a runaway slave under Roman law could be condemned to death. St. Paul is sending this newly baptized brother back to his owner Philemon a Christian known to St. Paul. Philemon is to receive Onesimus as a brother just a Philemon would receive Paul. The Apostle does not say that Onesimus should be freed. Paul does say that he will come to visit and see how the situation has been handled.

Paul condemns several types of people in his writings. A primary example is the text of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Where Paul has advised against the use of law courts to settle disputes among believers. He gives a list of the types of people who are outside the kingdom of God. Among these people he lists two specific types of people. The New Revised Standard Version uses the terms “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” These words translate malakoi and arsenokoitai respectively.

The first word derives from a word meaning soft or effeminate. The translation of male prostitutes does not appear to be warranted. Suetonius, the Roman historian, describes how many male Roman leaders kept male sexual slaves. It was a practice that went back many centuries. Alexander the Great kept boys for the same purpose. This form of sexual slavery is practiced in central Asia in modern times.

The next word arsenokoitai presents a puzzle for the translator. It just so happens that the very first time we see this passage in Greek literature is this very text. It is not likely Paul made up a word that his ancient readers would not understand. It is a problem for the modern translator. It is a compound word that gives a literal meaning of “to go to bed with” or “lie down with.” From that knowledge the text implicates both the slave and the one using the slave. To our modern sensibilities that is not just. Given the context of the situation of the law court the issue may be about the impression of guilt rather than moral responsibility.  The use of this text to condemn homosexual relationships that are consensual stretches the meaning of the text.

The most commonly used text by modern interpreters of Scripture to is found in Romans 1:27. This text talks about how “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way men, giving up natural intercourse for woman, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” The question to ask here is, “what error is Paul talking about?” The context is simple enough to understand. St. Paul is talking about the loss of worship of the transcendent God for anything and everything else that can be substituted for God. This list is as close to exhaustive as St. Paul can get. It describes the results of the removal of humanity from the God that is the creator of good things. There is not one sin listed here that is not a perversion of something good. Sexual slavery is perhaps the worst form of domination of the creature over another creature. It is predatory. Whether the sexual actions can be classified as heterosexual or homosexual does not matter because sexual slavery is destructive of all sexuality for a person or people desiring to replace that transcendent God over the creation.

No person is outside the love of God. No one is above the will of God. All too often people who read and interpret the Scriptures do so with our own prejudices in mind. It is important to remember that the only real actions the Bible asks us to do is live and act in the love of God and the love of other human beings. For this reason, I believe St. Paul understood the stigma of slavery, domination, and the inherent violence involved to be the ultimate result of people attempting to live without transcendence. We all have turned away and are without excuse before God. This is why grace is imperative to and for human beings.

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