Was the Apostle Paul Gay? Did his homosexuality shape Christianity?

Struggle against homosexual desire may have inspired Paul the Apostle to write sublime Biblical teachings on unconditional love and inclusivity — and also a few “clobber passages” used by anti-LGBTQ bigots.

Both Paul’s sense of unworthiness and his appreciation for God’s grace may have the same unexpected cause: Some scholars believe that Paul was a celibate homosexual man trying to reconcile faith and same-sex attraction. This may have been the “thorn in the flesh” that God refused to remove despite his prayers.

Such Pauline paradoxes have long fascinated people of faith while alienating progressives. He wrote magnificent meditations on inclusivity and petty rules that have divided people by fueling sexism, racism and antisemitism.

LGBTQ Christians often keep their distance from Paul and are justifiably reluctant to claim him as a “queer saint.” But his ideas are influential and often liberating.

Paul the Apostle, also known as Saul of Tarsus, is widely considered one of the most important figures in Western history and one of the greatest religious leaders of all time. He is second only to Jesus in his impact on Christianity. More than half of the books in the New Testament are attributed to him, and seven are recognized as his own authentic work.

It may seem absurd to consider Paul as queer. As Gayheroes.com asked: “Who in their right mind would ever think that St. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, writer of Epistles used by Christians to condemn gay people for centuries, might himself be gay?”

The most outspoken church leader on this question is John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop. He presents the case for Paul’s homosexuality in his 1991 bestseller “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture”:

“When I suggest the possibility that Paul was a homosexual person, I do not mean to be salacious or titillating or even to suggest something that many would consider scandalous. I see no evidence to suggest that Paul ever acted out his sexual desires and passions…. A rigidly controlled gay male, I believe, taught the church what the love of God means …

Nothing else, in my opinion, could account for Paul’s self-judging rhetoric, his negative feeling toward his own body, and his sense of being controlled by something he had no power to change. The war that went on between what he desired with his mind and what he desired with his body, his drivenness to a legalistic religion of control, his fear when that system was threatened, his attitude toward women, his refusal to seek marriage as an outlet for his passion — nothing else accounts for this data as well as the possibility that Paul was a gay male.” (p. 117)

Some facts suggest Paul was gay

Spong and others point out that a homosexual orientation would explain some mysteries about Paul’s life:

  • Paul never married, which was unusual for a first-century Jew, but had a series of younger men as companions.
  • He sometimes expressed negativity toward women and homosexual exploitation.
  • Tormented by self-reproach, he pleaded with God three times in vain to remove an unspecified “thorn in my flesh” that troubled him. Some believe that “thorn” was attraction to other men. God’s answer, according to Paul, was to deny his request with the explanation, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
  • Homosexuality might even help explain Paul’s cataclysmic conversion experience. He went from intensely persecuting Christians to becoming the most articulate leader of the very movement that he had tried to destroy. His vision of Christ left him stunned by the revelation that nothing could separate him from God’s love.

“The war going on inside of him is a fairly classic description of what I have come to understand in repressed gay males,” Spong said in a Los Angeles Times interview.

For Spong, these contradictions finally made sense when he first encountered the possibility of Paul’s homosexuality in the 1937 book “Saint Paul” by British theologian Arthur Darby Nock.

“I was absolutely floored by how it opened up Paul to me,” he told the LA Times.

Spong: “A gay male taught the church what the love of God means”

Spong gives an eloquent and detailed explanation of why he believes Paul was gay in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.” Some find the idea scandalous, but Spong sees beauty in Paul’s queer spiritual journey:

“To me it is a beautiful idea that a homosexual male, scorned then as well as now, living with both the self-judgment and the social judgments that a fearful society has so often unknowingly pronounced upon the very being of some it its citizens, could nonetheless, not in spite of this but because of this, be the one who would define grace for Christian people. For two thousand years of Christian history this Pauline definition has been at the very core of the Christian experience. Grace was the love of God, an unconditional love, that loved Paul just as he was. A rigidly controlled gay male, I believe, taught the Christian church what the love of God means and what, therefore, Christ means as God’s agent. Finally, it was a gay male, tortured and rejected, who came to understand what resurrection means as God’s vindicating act.” (p. 125)

Spong also asserts that Paul was homosexual in a video of his 2006 debate with James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries. Viewers can watch the full three-hour debate or the seven-minute section where Spong argues for Paul’s homosexuality:

On the video he sums up his views on Paul’s sexual orientation, including this statement:

Paul went through a cataclysmic experience, and in that conversion experience I think he came to the realization that God loved him just as he is, as we indeed sing ‘Just as I am without one plea.’ That’s how God loved him. And he came out of that convinced, in what I think is a very revealing statement, that nothing could finally separate him from the love of God, not even he says ‘my own nakedness’ can separate me from the love of God. Now I don’t know that Paul was gay, and I have no sense that even if he were gay he ever acted it out. My sense is he lived bound by the law in such a way that it was killing him inside. But his conversion experience was a sense that whatever it is that God is, God loved him as he was, and so he breaks into this great epiphany of wonder that not height, not depth, not angels, not principalities, not things present, not things to come, nothing can separate me from the love of God. Now let me just finally say, I don’t know that Paul was gay. That’s a supposition. I’m personally convinced of it. I’ll ask him when I get to the kingdom of heaven. It will be a very revealing conversation.

Paul’s life was full of passion and paradox

Paul was an intense, intelligent man of many contradictions. He was born around the same year as Jesus in the city of Tarsus, a large trade center on the Mediterranean coast in modern Turkey. It was rare for a first-century Jew to be a citizen of Rome, but he apparently inherited Roman citizenship from his father.

Mosaic of the Apostle Paul from Archepiscopal Chapel in Ravenna, Italy, c. 500

Paul had a dual identity as a Greek-speaking Jew: He came from a devout Jewish family of Pharisees — the same strictly religious group that Jesus accused of hypocrisy for enforcing the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. But he was also an outsider who grew up outside the Jewish homeland. His family made sure that he was well educated in Greek and Roman classical philosophy and also sent him to Jerusalem to study with Gamaliel, one of the leading first-century rabbis.

His double identity is reflected by his two names. His Jewish name was Saul, but as a Roman citizen, he also had the Latin name Paul or Paulus. Apparently he used the names interchangeably in his ministry, switching to whichever name and language would put people most at ease. His primary ministry was to Gentiles, so he is best known as Paul to Christians today.

In the first half of his life Paul persecuted Christians as heretics, then became their greatest champion. He never met Jesus, but he became his most zealous spokesman, spreading Christianity across the ancient world. His zeal expanded the Jesus movement from a small Jewish sect to a worldwide faith open to everyone.

Paul’s famous conversion experience happened when he was on the desert road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Spewing death threats, he intended to arrest the followers of Jesus. Instead, according Biblical accounts, the risen Christ appeared to him in a blinding light and called him by his Hebrew name: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul fell to the ground and was struck blind.

He spent the next three days in fasting and prayer. Then he recovered his sight, got baptized and began to preaching that Jesus was the Jewish messiah and Son of God.

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Paul went on to travel tens of thousands of miles around the Mediterranean world to spread the Christian faith. Along the way he experienced famine, shipwreck, scourging and imprisonment. When necessary, he supported himself by working as a tentmaker. His authentic letters to church communities live on in the Bible as the epistle to the Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Corinthians, Thessalonians and Philemon. At various times his travelling companions included future saints Silas, Barnabas and Timothy.

Even though his writings have been used to subjugate women, he also befriended women church leaders such as Lydia, a businesswoman who sold purple dye; Chloe, an important member of the Corinth church; Junia who was “prominent among the apostles”; Priscilla, who was a missionary with her husband Aquilla; and a deacon and benefactor named Phoebe.

He wrote about liberation for all creation in ways that inspire today’s environmentalists, as expressed in books such as “Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis.”

Paul spent the last two years of his life under house arrest in Rome. Details of his death cannot be confirmed. According to tradition, both Paul and Peter were executed in Rome around 67 AD as part of the persecution of Christians.

Paul’s influence continues to permeate Christianity every day, but two feast days are set aside to honor him: Jan. 25 is the Feast of Conversion of Saint Paul, a relatively new and minor occasion. June 29 is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, one of the oldest saint days in the Christian calendar. It commemorates their martyrdom.

Novels explore Paul’s homosexual side

At least three novels have explored the possibility of Paul’s sexual attraction to men. They include:

The Secret Love Letters of Saint Paul” by Bern Callahan. (Booklocker, 2016)

Same-sex romance blossoms between the Apostles Paul and Timothy of the New Testament in a daring and suspenseful novel. The gay historical romance switches between their love affair soon after the death of Christ and a story set in the near future, when young priest Finn McDonagh finds the secret love letters from Paul to Timothy. The discovery of the letters leads to intrigue in the in the homophobic corridors of the Vatican. The fictional format allows for exploration of Paul’s inner contradictions as a charismatic preacher with a reputation for being sex-negative as he opened up the Roman Empire to Christianity. The author brings a rare insider/outsider viewpoint as a former Roman Catholic priest who embraced Buddhism and became a meditation teacher. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his partner. Published by Booklocker.com.

A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle” by R.W. “Obie” Holmen. (Bascom Hill Publishing, 2010)

Paul’s struggle with homosexual urges is skillfully incorporated into this fictional account of the early church. It brings to life Paul’s inner turmoil and contentious relationships with others inside and outside the Jesus movement.

According to the book description, “Paul drew adversaries like a moth to a flame: Jews of the synagogue, pagan temple priests, Roman authorities, and James, the brother of Jesus…. With each step along countless miles, Paul carried the rejection and disapproval of James in Jerusalem…”

A former trial lawyer, the author did post-graduate studies at St John’s School of Theology, a progressive Benedictine community in Minnesota. He is also the author of “Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.”

The Apostle: A Novel Based on the Life of Saint Paul” by Sholem Asch. (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943)

This vivid historical fiction is said to include a reverently homoerotic description of Paul’s relationship with Timothy, especially right after his circumcision when Paul embraces and kisses him.

The book provides a vivid description of the Roman Empire as summarized in the official description: “The orgies and intrigues of the Emperor Nero’s court. The cruelty of infanticide, the brutal oppression of the slaves in the mines and bronze pits. The sadistic decadence of the gladiatorial arena. The slaughter of the New Christians. The arrogance, lust, and intellectual insolence of Rome arrayed against the poor, powerless Christians who had only their faith to sustain them.”

Asch was a prominent Polish-born Jewish novelist who wrote in Yiddish. “The Apostle” is part of his controversial trilogy on the founders of Christianity (Mary, Paul and Jesus).

Did Paul condemn homosexuality?

A few scattered passages attributed to the Apostle Paul have been used to condemn homosexuality for centuries, inciting anti-gay violence and sodomy executions. They include Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, and 1 Timothy 1:9–10.

These verses are among a small set of scriptures known as “clobber passages” because proof-texting conservatives wield them like weapons to justify discrimination and clobber or bash LGBTQ people.

Many Bible scholars have debunked the idea that the Bible condemns today’s loving, responsible same-sex relationships. They use powerful arguments to prove their point: The scriptures that supposedly ban homosexuality have been mistranslated and/or taken out of context. Prejudice against homosexuality led to misunderstanding of the original texts. Some of the passages attributed to Paul may have been inserted later by lesser authors. Scripture needs to be interpreted in light of history and reason.

Saint Paul, right, appears to have a conflicted relationship with Saint Peter in a painting by El Greco, c. 1600 (Wikipedia)

The following books are recommended for further study about what Paul (and the rest of the Bible) says about homosexuality:

God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” by Matthew Vines (2014, Convergent Books)

What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality” by Daniel Helminiak (Alamo Square Press, 2000)

UnClobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality” by Colby Martin (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016)

Paul’s best quotes: “Love never ends”

People will deny themselves access to some of Christianity’s most powerful ideas if they try to avoid all of Paul’s writings because of a few pesky passages used to promote intolerance.

Here are some of his most famous and beloved quotations. For the full text, readers just need to reach for their favorite translation of the Bible. Q Spirit recommends the Inclusive BibleNew Revised Standard Version and New International Version.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
— I Corinthians 13:4-8 (ESV)

“Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
— I Corinthians 13:13

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
— Galatians 3:28 (NLV)

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
— Romans 12:2

“All things work together for good for those who love God.”
— Romans 8:28

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
— I Corinthians 12:27

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
— Philippians 4:13

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
— Ephesians 2:8 (ESV)

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.”
— Hebrews 11:1

“We are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
— Romans 8:38-39

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
— 2 Corinthians 4: 7-10

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
— Romans 8:26

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption.”
— Romans 8:22-24 (ESV)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
— Hebrews 12:1-2

“I pray that… Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
— Ephesians 3:16-19

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
— Philippians 4:6

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
— Philippians 4: 8 (NIV)

Links related to Paul the Apostle

St. Paul the Apostle (Queering the Church)

Top image credit:
Embrace of the Apostles Peter and Paul icon (Jim Forest). A similar icon is available from Angelicon at Amazon.

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBT and queer martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

This post originally appeared on Q-Spirit.
Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved. Used by permission.