The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Romans 1

This is the fourth post in a series. I highly encourage that you read those previous posts before reading this one. The preface is here. The guidelines are here. A discussion Hebrew Bible texts is here.

I had meant to consider in this post all of the New Testament texts that have directly apply to our discussion about the Bible, homosexuality, and Christianity. However, it seems to me that the passage of interest in Romans in the most salient and also the most ripe for discussion, so I will look at the data for the 1 Corinthians passage and the 1 Timothy passage next time, while making Romans 1 the sole focus of today.

Romans 1

Romans 1:26-27 is the particular passage that many argue is an airtight case against homosexuality. The verses are as follows: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, 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 first thing I see here is that the opening sentence reminds us that this verse does not stand in isolation. “For this reason” forces us to look backward to the context of this verse. The reason that “for THIS reason” refers to is found in the preceding verses, 24-25, which are as follows, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator

Of course, this brings up another reminder (THEREFORE) which causes us to go back even further, to verses 18-23, which are as follows, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.”

In summary, Paul is lamenting (with a rhetorical goal which I will address below) that there are gentiles who, although Creation itself bears witness to God, have turned away to false gods, ones who resemble humans, birds, four-legged animals, and reptiles. Because of this (their idolatry), God gave them up to shameful passions. The way that this played out, the consequence of their idolatry, was that God allowed them to bring shame on themselves, including shame that comes from unnatural sexual acts. Paul says in verse 27 that they “received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Noting the above, it is clear that the sin that is in view here is not the sexual acts themselves, but rather idolatry. In particular, pagan styled idolatry which involved the gods common to the surrounding areas, be they Greek/Roman, Levantine, or Egyptian/Mystery-religion. In fact, Romans goes on to say that the penalty for sin is death, but here, Paul says that they have already received the due penalty for their shameful acts, which Paul calls error, not sin. The sexual acts, be they homosexual or otherwise, are the consequence of idolatrous sin, not the sin itself. To be sure, Paul does indeed condemn sexual sin, but it isn’t clear from this verse that all of these acts are indeed sinful in and of themselves, but rather the implication is that no matter what the sexual acts are, that committing them as part of a pagan worship service is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Verse 26 notes that “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.” Some have taken this to be a condemnation of lesbian sex. However, the text does not refer to lesbian sex, but only to “unnatural” intercourse. This could be referring to lesbian sex, but likely refers to the way women would abuse their bodies in cultic fashion by having sex with statues (of gods), participating in orgies, or even bestiality, as were all common in pagan rites and celebrations.

Verse 27 claims explicitly that men were abandoning “natural” relationships and having sex with each other, as they were consumed by lust. This is the most clear condemnation of male to male intercourse in the Bible. However, there are still things to discuss before a conclusion is reached.

The verse in question raised a thought in my mind. It says that men were abandoning “natural” relationships. In the context of his writing, there was no such thing as a “homosexual,” in the way we think of the term today (which is less than 200 years old). For the Roman culture around Paul, it was not uncommon for a man to have a wife, with whom he had children and left to tend to his household affairs, as well as a lover, who attended to his sexual desires. The two were not nearly as connected as our culture deems them to be. In fact, marriage very very rarely happened for love, and if a marriage never led to love, it didn’t matter at all, since that was never the point of marriage in the ancient world at all. So men would be married for financial or societal reasons, and could keep lovers on the side, and, in addition to these lovers being women, men and boys were often the lovers. In Roman culture, this in no way insinuated that the Roman male was “gay” or “homosexual.” In fact, this did not seem to bother anyone in the slightest, as it was just fulfilling a sexual desire. Indeed, it was considered legal for a Roman male to be the dominant partner in any sexual union, whether male/female or male/male. But it was considered wrong for a Roman male to be the submissive partner. All of this to say, that one’s nature was never questioned. It was assumed that homosexual acts were simply to meet sexual desires. Paul, and the surrounding culture, simply couldn’t have conceived of  two men, in an equal partnership of love, wanting to marry each other. It is clear that to Paul then, giving up one’s “nature” meant going against what came naturally. But what if it came naturally to someone to desire a loving homosexual relationship? I don’t think any of us can crawl up inside Paul’s mind to answer that question. But, the seed of doubt is there that this verse may not be addressing the sort of homosexuality that is being debated in our culture today.

Further, these acts are described as shameful and degrading, not sinful. Once again, the sin in view here is idolatry  not sexual mores. And so, given the context of the preceding verse, one gets the impression that Paul is saying something that might sound like this to our modern ears: “So there are tons of people out there, who knowing in their hearts that there is a God, instead of going to church on Sundays to find him, went instead to the mythological religions, and God let them do it. There, at their worship services, where the debauchery ran high, women were doing all sorts of vile things with their bodies, like they do in pagan cult rituals. Men, who seem mild mannered Monday through Friday, when Sunday rolled around could be found having all sorts of sex with themselves behind the veils of idol worship. Of course, when the passion cooled down, the booze ran out, and the std’s and facebook pictures showed up, God’s teachings made more sense and they were ashamed of having participated.”

Please don’t take the above as gospel, but it is simply one way to get at how all of this might fit together.

As if to put the above in context for us, Paul goes on to list, in verses 28-32, a list of things that, as a result of idolatry “should not be done.” It is interesting to note that there are no sexual items listed, homosexual, heterosexual or otherwise. It is clear from the rest of Paul’s writings that he does indeed have a problem with misused sexuality, but it is clear that from this passage in Romans, that it is not Paul’s intent to discuss sexual ethics, but rather to simply describe the things that people were doing, as a result of idolatry,  that they were ashamed of.

Lastly….and I think this is the big point… all of this, especially leading to verse 32, where Paul states, “those who practice such things deserve to die,” was rhetorically engineered to whip the pious up into a frenzy. By the time they were done reading Romans 1, religious Jewish Christians would have been shouting, “amen!” And then Paul drops the hammer that is Romans 2:1. “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say,* ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?”

Paul says then, after he has whipped up a self-righteous religious frenzy in his audience, that they should never try to condemn those others, even the worst idolaters. Because they, even the faithful Jews who have accepted Messiah, do the same things. The whole of Romans 1 has led to this moment, where, far from condemning anyone, Paul makes it clear that God has not, and therefore no one, not even the most pious Christian, should make any attempt to condemn anyone else. For myself, I simply cannot, even with its condemnation of homosexuality in the context of idolatry, see Romans 1 as offering a blanket condemnation of all homosexuality. The text simply does not support that. A loving, homosexual, egalitarian marriage would have been as possible for Paul and the Roman world to comprehend as a telephone would have been. The Bible doesn’t speak about telephones. That is because the writers simply couldn’t have imagined it. The same is true for the sort of homosexuality that is in discussion today.

For all of the discussion above, this does not amount to a Biblical endorsement of homosexuality or homosexual practice. I remain committed to examining the data, and making every attempt to be as unbiased as I can. The best I can say about Romans 1 is that it is a scathing commentary and condemnation of idolatry. The act of knowing God and throwing God away to give in to desires, is a very shameful thing indeed. Further – no one should try to condemn anyone else, even given a multitude of deeds we consider vile, because when we do, we condemn ourselves.

Jump to part 5, A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10, here.

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Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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21 thoughts on “The Bible, Homosexuality, and Christianity: Romans 1

    • Sure thing, Paul. While some of it comes from simply immersing myself in the culture of the Bible for the last 10 or so years, through tons of various books, here are a few I found immediately helpful. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters by IVP, Oxford Classical Dictionary entry on Homosexuality, books by Martha Nussbaum and Gloria Ferrari Pinney, as well as your typical run of the mill commentaries and Bible courses at seminary. Although I imagine if you were savvy with a few google searches, much of it is available in some form online.

  1. Hey Chad!
    This is a really excellent breakdown of perhaps the most pervasive “clobber text” in the entire Bible. Without taking anything away from it, I would suggest that a look at how Paul understands the word “nature” or the phrase “against nature” (para physin) might be in order. For Paul, nature is not a biological distinction but rather nature (physis) expresses a fundamental cultural rule or a conventional way of being in the world. It is similar to how “abomination” is used in the Hebrew Bible, namely as an action which is against custom and tradition. In this sense, “naturalness” refers to socially constructed gender roles rather than genital formation or function. If you haven’t already read this, I would recommend Martti Nissinen’s book “Homoeroticism in the Biblical World”, which offers a great commontary on Romans 1:26-27 as well as a very thougtful understanding of gender roles in the ancient world.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Ryan! And I will be sure to check out Nissinen’s book. I didn’t want to get too much into the Greek, as I felt like the post was getting unwieldy, but You are correct. In verse 26, the physis is discussed and is used as categories imposed from the outside, man-made. In v.27, however, Paul uses physikos, which means something more akin to “instinct.” I think perhaps in the ancient world, a condemnation of homosexual practice would have made sense based on the idea that everyone’s instinct was heterosexual, but now, we have multitudes of folk who would say that their instinct IS same sex desire. So the text is ambiguous at best, at least in regards to our current national dialogue. Thanks for allowing me to indulge that theo-nerd talk!

  2. Greetings Optimist!

    I am glad that we are having a civil conversation about this issue, and that you are not taking this issue lightly.

    There are a few points I wish to make pushback against in regards to this post and the comments, first, the term “clobber passages.”

    1. Clobber passages is a pejorative term, and very contestable at best. It’s a way to use polemics as a way of dismissing bible passages we may or may not like. I find it rather too cheap a shot for social progressives to use this terms, and this is just giving in to the stereotype by right wingers that progressives do not take the Bible seriously.

    2. No, the terms gay, queer, GLBTQI, or homosexual are not found in Scripture and neither are their relationships, like you said. I do agree, just like no where in the Bible, you said, telephones are not in our text. However, what’s the purpose of a telephone? It is to communicate, is it not? Are there behaviors (say, phone sex and sext messages) that we see as wrong? Indeed, so Scripture has something to say about communication. Did Jesus say we can call all of our friends niggas (Racas)? Are we not told that the tongue is a dangerous thing? Phones, no. Communication, yes. Same thing goes for marriage and sex, IMO. Scripture does not address identity and sexuality issues, whether a person is born this or that way, or even heterosexual identity and gender roles. Nope, what the Bible does address is a preferred praxis of being sexual, that starts, IMO, and in light of Jesus’ teaching on Marriage (we call his Teaching on Divorce), is that beginning with those two little cute toddlers Adam and Eve, marriage as a sacrament is for one man and one woman. I lean the way of prioritizing orthopraxis over orthodoxy, that’s where I have stood for a long time. I love my GLBTQI friends, virtual and meatworld, and I refuse to judge them. I am not judge, that title belongs to Jesus alone (soli Christi). I am trying to find a way to love my friends in the here and now, as well as my friends (the saints) in the past. I can agree actually with your reading of Leviticus, that abomination may probably mean taboo, or custom that’s not preferred/not ideal practice. It’s about praxis. Praxis Praxis Praxis.

    3. Romans 1:26-27 seems to be coming from a Jewish angle, to discuss the sinfulness of the Gentiles, I agree. But what makes you certain that it affirms “a homosexual egalitarian relationship?” Why couldn’t it affirm and promote a complementarian one? I ask this in jest, but #IJS.

    4. Lastly, I don’t think we can fully grasp what Paul meant by “natural.” One side of the aisle will say “he meant naturally born,” the other will say the exact opposite. Of course, even if it is “against custom or tradition” I mean it still means we are going back to practice and not identity. Is there a biblical way of looking at our identity? I’ll leave that to the Pastoral Care & Biblical Counseling folks. Not even gonna touch that one.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Rod. To your points:
      1) I have not used the term “clobber passages” in this discussion, as I feel roughly the same as you about it. However, many people have had these text swung against them by those who don’t mean well, and so I can see why some might use them.
      2) You know that I, too, favor orthopraxis over orthodoxy. However, this doesn’t settle the issue for me. While Leviticus certainly states what sexual orthopraxis looked like for the Israelites living in the midst of Levantine paganism, that praxis may or may not carry over to our context. I hope to deal with the why or why not in a few posts. However, you said this: The Bible addresses “a preferred praxis of being sexual,” discussed by Jesus, but started with Adam and Eve. And I agree. But that isn’t the whole story. Clearly, the Bible accommodates other praxis in regards to sexuality. Celibacy and polygamy, being the most clear examples, of how the scripture can certainly give priority to one relationship status (male-female) without condemning another (celibacy or polygamy).
      3) I seem to be getting this accusation a lot lately, but I certainly haven’t said it this far. “But what makes you certain that it affirms “a homosexual egalitarian relationship?” This is a misunderstanding of what I have gleaned from the text. I did not say anywhere that the scripture AFFIRMS anything. I simply said that a “a homosexual egalitarian relationship” is not what is being CONDEMNED here.
      4) The point of bringing up what Paul might have meant with “natural” is to discuss what is clearly Jesus-centered ethical praxis and what might be culturally conditioned and socially constructed (and time sensitive) praxis. I think this is a big distinction. Paul made it clear in his letters that not all of the advice he was writing to the churches was from God. Some of it was simply the best the man Paul could come up with at the time. And I plan on dealing with how and why Paul matters in the discussion of Christian ethics and interpretation in a few posts from now. Suffice to say that if Paul’s critique was based on a Hellenistic or Roman view of “normal,” or even a 1st century Jewish one, that view does not need to be normative for us today in order for us to attempt to be faithful to the heart of what Paul was trying to help us avoid. Which in the context of Romans, was judging and/or idolotry.

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  8. It is right that one must dig into Paul’s use of “nature.” But the investigation will show that Paul’s use is not related either to socially constructed gender roles or instinct. Rather, it’s related to notions of the “order of nature” as presented in Genesis 1 mediated through early Jewish theology and philosophy, esp. Philo.

    If you’re going to read Martha Nussbaum and Marti Nissinen, then you should also read David Novak (a colleague of mine who has carried on a long debate with Nussbaum — a Google search for “David Novak marriage” will get you the essays) and Robert Gagnon.

  9. While I haven’t read Novak, I am familiar with Gagnon, and above, I didn’t mean to communicate that the authors I listed were exhaustive for this discussion. By all means, I encourage Gagnon’s book, as I feel that, while good people can disagree with his conclusions, he doesn’t ever seem condescending or malicious.

    As to “nature,” it is right to examine every word of scripture as diligently as one can, but even if “nature” was clear here, which the various comments above indicate that it isn’t, that single word isn’t the thrust of the argument above. Still, for the sake of argument, I will resort to using the telephone analogy. It is “unnatural” for people to be able to talk to each other over long distances. Our minds had to change in order to adjust to not being able to see someone we were hearing so clearly. Yet, no one would condemn telephones based on that reading of Paul’s use of “nature.” It is simply something that is different in our culture than it was in theirs. I submit that homosexuality, in the way that it can be practiced today, is not the same as the homosexual acts that resulted from a pagan cultic worship ecstasy.

    • Your metaphor misses the point I was making about nature, since adjusting to a different technology has to do with something we learn or unlearn. What Paul is talking about in many cases in Romans when he uses nature (admittedly he does use terms variously, as for instance with “law”) is something that is established external to humans — the order by which Yahweh created all. And the light-dark, day-night, male-female dualism that pervades Genesis 1 is deeply embedded within the other Hebrew Bible texts as well as Paul’s thinking.

      • I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but where does that leave those children of God that are born (created by God?) with more than one gender, or no clear gender, at birth? They don’t fit into that dualism, and yet they were “knit together in their mother’s womb” by God. It seems to me that those who read only a complimentarian view of gender into scripture and sexuality don’t know how to deal with these folk, either from a sexual standpoint, or a loving one, for by not addressing them more publicly (if they do at all), they condemn them to loneliness and confusion as to where they stand with a God who can’t accept anything beyond the norm.

    • There are *always* phenomena that don’t fit neat categories. Take shellfish, for example. They exist, and so if one believes in a creator, they must have been created. But they don’t fit the neat categories of land or sea creature. And so, being on the margins, eating them is prohibited for the people whom God has chosen to represent him to the world. They must eat, dress, live as best they can according to the clearly discernible categories of creation.

      That shellfish exist at the blurry lines of the category doesn’t mean they are inherently immoral, but it clearly does affect their place in the cosmic order (good for them, one less people group eating them!). But simply because their actual categorical identification is less easily discernible than, e.g., cattle, doesn’t invalidate the categories, or the behavior instructed w.r.t. the categories.

      This is where the, for example, the NT depiction of the love advocated by Jesus enters the discussion about principles of morality and purity. Jesus did not set aside the categories, but simply illustrated how one can uphold and respect the categories of the cosmos while also loving those on the margins. But Jesus’ love is like Yhwh’s mercy when he chooses not to meet out deserved punishment — it does not somehow erase the right-and-wrong of the behavior in question; it simply shows that God is inexplicably merciful. Jesus never said the adulteress wasn’t immoral; he simply asked the stone-throwers to address their own sinfulness, too.

      So, too, one could argue that the Bible exhibits a consistent stance on illicit sexual behavior, from Genesis through Paul, but that those who set Jesus up as a model for behavior should find a way to uphold both the morality they see in advocated in the texts alongside a mercy they also should see in the texts. Showing compassion does not mean one has to ditch a whole truckload of principles in the misguided attempt to make the object of compassion feel better about him or herself. Sloppy thinking, that.

      I despise the comp and egal labels and reject the boxes they force on a person. It seems to be the rhetorical m.o. of the times — label someone and despise them. My reading of functional pairs in the cosmos depicted in Genesis 1 proceeds from my study of ANE cosmological texts and working to situate Genesis in its cultural context.

      But this is has taken way too much time away from writing and teaching prep. Stupid Biblioblog library list…

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