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 1:26-27 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.