It is this question I wish to address for Christians and all those interested in one of Christianity’s earliest writers.
Suggest that Paul was a gay man, and often the response will range from pure dismissal to outright anger. The idea that a writer of the Scriptures, which are considered to be the direct Word of God in much of Christianity, could be gay is startling to say the least. But such a suggestion obviously requires a great amount of evidence. After all, a basic understanding of the Scriptures would be challenged by such an assertion. So it is to the evidence that we now turn…
Paul was a dramatic man, deeply convicted and emotional. In fact, his overly emotional nature should elicit immediate pause as he lived in a society that did not look kindly upon such emotional display. But this in and of itself could simply be a unique trait possessed by Paul, not necessarily representative of his orientation. However, his stark emotionality leaves him more vulnerable to the probing of a textual critic, making our exploration a bit simpler.
Let us start by turning to the pinnacle of the Pauline corpus, his “last will and testament” so-to-speak. This work would be the letter to the Romans, Paul’s last before his (presumable) execution. In this letter, he gives us a slight clue to the battle going on within him. Allow me to quote an English translation of his words: “…I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:23 NASB).
As the much-respected retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong delicately pointed out, this passage reveals more than we might first notice upon a cursory reading. Paul speaks in the larger context of this chapter about a constant war. He claims sin dwells in his “members,” or his bodily parts. However, he attempts to control these members with the “law of his mind” that seems to be often failing him. Many would claim this to be merely a passage referring to the human struggle with sin, but bringing in other elements of the Pauline Corpus, this interpretation becomes a bit lacking.
By looking at an earlier work attributed to Paul, the second letter to the Corinthians, we see yet another clue in this intriguing puzzle. Paul says that, “there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7 NASB). It has been suggested that this was either epilepsy or a problem regarding eyesight, although, such an ailment would hardly represent a messenger of Satan as these ailments do not act as agents of temptation. But, I will not thoroughly dismiss these interpretations as epilepsy does appear to be often mistaken for demonic possession in the era of Paul’s writing. However, once again, it becomes necessary to put this passage in a larger context.
In the opening chapter of Romans, Paul describes those he sees as the enemies of God as being confused sexually as a punishment for their sins. In his letter, he says that “God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Romans 1:26-27 NASB).
This seems a bit odd as Jesus is not seen as discussing sexual orientation, a subject one would believe he would preach during his discussions regarding sexual indiscretion, assuming that he considered the actions or state of gay individuals as being sinful. It is important to remember that Paul views himself as a representative of Jesus, so this contrast should cause a pause in the reader. This is not the only time Paul is seen displaying tendencies that can only be described as homophobic. He makes what appear to be negative statements toward gay individuals in his first letter to the Corinthians. It is, however, worth noting that the concept of sexual orientation had not yet developed, so such verses refer to lust and sex as standalone sins, not in any way connected with a concept of sexual orientation. Keep this in mind as we continue to examine the issues at hand.
Aside from the homophobia displayed in the Pauline corpus, another often-overlooked trend becomes noticeable upon careful reading. Paul seems to take a negative view of women and marriage. He writes to his male readers, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1 NASB). Paul was not married as he directly states when he gives these instructions to the unmarried and widows: “But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I” (1 Corinthians 1:8 NASB). Marriage is seen by Paul as a last resort for weak individuals in the next passage, “But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 1:9 NASB).
One is probably now wondering why Paul would feel the need to create such a defensive web of misogyny and anti-marriage bias if Jesus did not seem to have an issue with gay individuals. Often forgotten is the fact that Paul was an educated Jewish man, and to commit sexual actions outside of traditional heterosexual married relationships was against Jewish law. So while Paul is responsible for the propagation of Christianity, he was writing with the perspective of a convert who was previously an extremely dedicated and educated traditional Jew. To indulge his passions, were he gay, would have been a grave sin.
Now that we have considered this array of clues from Paul’s writings, it becomes important to finish addressing the passage with which we began our study. We return to the “war” in Paul’s “members.” This war in his members may have even been connected to the “thorn in his flesh” that served as a “messenger of Satan.” Whether or not these concepts are connected, the question still remains… What part of the body will not obey the “law of the mind”? Without being crude, the answer is a somewhat obvious one when considering the anatomy of a male. Arms, legs, and the like can be controlled by the mind. But, there remains a member that often is not so easily controlled by the mind. It is to this member that I believe Paul was referring. And considering the other segments we have examined, I also believe that Paul was in fact a repressed gay individual. While this cannot be proven, it does seem one of the few answers that properly fits the questions raised by the evidence. If Paul was a gay man, a drastic rereading of Scripture would be demanded in light of such a discovery.
(I wish to thank John Shelby Spong for first bringing this idea to my attention in a compelling and challenging way.)