The Bible and Homosexuality; Romans

Romans 1

…26 For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 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.

Finally we come to the most significant of biblical texts for the issue of homosexuality.  The few verses quoted above are part of a carefully-crafted argument that Paul is putting forward to the church in Rome.  It really begins at vss 16 & 17, where Paul proclaims that he is not ashamed of the gospel which is for everyone – Jew and then Greek – and that in it the righteousness of God is revealed.  He then goes on to prove that God is righteous by showing that his wrath and judgement “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” What comes next is an exposition of how God has revealed his wrath, as well as a demonstration of how the truth has been suppressed.  Vss 19- 20 argues that God’s power and nature are understood through creation, and so ignorance is no excuse.  The ‘ungodliness’ and ‘wickedness’ of vs 18 is described in vs. 21; that though God was known, people refused to honour him or give him thanks; rather their minds were ‘darkened’ because they “they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (vs 23).  This is significant because it introduces the idea of ‘exchange’ that becomes a central motif through the rest of the argument, and because it identifies the key sin (ignoring God) with idolatry[1].  In other words, it is when we are at our most religious, that humans tend to be farthest from God.  Many commentators also see in the enumeration of the forms of the idols a reference to the created order; a verbal echo of Gen 1.24-26.  The significance (or otherwise) of the creation account for Paul in presenting his argument is an often disputed aspect of this passage[2].  The importance of this will be seen as we proceed.

Verse 24 is the first of three statements expounding the result of God’s wrath. It begins, “Therefore, God gave them up…”  A much better translation for the Greek word paredoken is “handed over” or “deliver up”[3], with the image of a person being handed over by the judge to those with responsibility to carry out the sentence; the same use of paredoken as in 1 Cor 5:5, and {of Jesus) in Luke 20:20 and 22:6.  This ties in much better with the idea that what Paul is talking about is a revelation of God’s wrath than the usual translation of “gave them up” with the strong connotation of abandonment.  Nowhere here does Paul intend us to understand that God has abandoned his wayward creation.  Instead, what Paul is saying is that God delivered us over for punishment – delivered us into the power of our own sinful desires[4], specifically, to impurity and to the degrading of our bodies amongst ourselves.   It should be noted that throughout the scriptures, the primary purpose of punishment is to bring about repentance, reconciliation, and restoration – it is never simply vindictiveness.  So Paul’s argument is that in response to the human refusal to acknowledge him as creator, God sentenced us to live according to our own foolishness.

Vs 25 reiterates the reason for this handing over, again in terms of an exchange of truth for lies, because we worshipped and served the creature instead of the creator, and then breaks briefly into doxology; partially in reaction to the horror of idolatry, partly out of simple reverence for God as Creator.

What does Paul mean by ‘Natural’ and ‘Unnatural’?

The references to ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ here does not imply that Paul is building his argument upon a ‘natural theology‘ –knowledge available by observing the world around us, implying that ‘what is, is what ought to be’.  If this were the case, then empirical observations of homosexual behaviour in various mammals, including humans, would show Paul to be simply wrong in describing it as ‘unnatural’.  I have already talked about the dangers of using empirical observations as a guide to moral decision-making.  Rather, he, like other Hellenistic Jews of his time, is evoking an image of what ought to be as ‘natural’; an implied ideal that, for Paul, is heavily coloured by his previous evocation of God as creator. (See on this Scroggs 1983, 97-98, 116 -117 and Hays 1996, 387)  Many exegetes at this point suggest that Paul has the biblical account of the creation of human beings specifically in mind here, noting not only the references to God as creator, and the echo of Genesis language in vs 23, but also the fact that in vss 26 &27 he doesn’t talk about ‘men’ and ‘women’ (as most of our translations, quite naturally, say) but ‘males’ and ‘females’.  The phrasing is unusual, and indicates that Paul was thinking not so much of identifiable individuals (who happen to be men and women) but of the human race as a whole, who are male and female; he is thinking of us specifically in terms of gender differentiation – and this language arises directly from the Genesis account of the creation of humanity in Gen 1:27.  In effect, by referencing the creation story, Paul is retelling the story of the fall.

Vs 26 and 27 returns to the visible evidence of God’s wrath; that we were handed over to degrading passions; specifically, that women “exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural”.  The word translated ‘intercourse’ here is ‘use’, with strongly sexual connotations[5].  This verse is significant for several reasons.  Firstly, because it anchors the language of ‘exchange’ (truth for lies, Glory of the immortal Creator for mortal creatures) in concrete social/sexual relations.  Paul isn’t simply talking about attitudes, but actions.  Secondly, because this is (probably) the only reference in all scripture to female homosexuality.  There may be those who argue that it does not refer to lesbian actions, but to ‘unnatural’ activities by women in heterosexual relationships, but the words “natural” and “unnatural” were regularly used in Paul’s culture to denote homosexual versus heterosexual relationships[6].  It is thought that Paul’s vagueness here is simply being modest in mentioning female homosexual relations as they tended to evoke a much more negative reaction than the socially normative male homosexuality[7].  Also, his language in the next verse (“in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse”) strongly implies that what he says explicitly of men (“consumed with passion for one another.  Men committed shameless acts with men”), he intended of women, also[8].

The ‘due penalty’ referred to in vs 27 is often, today, equated with the negative health effects of some forms of homosexual activity, and even to the HIV crisis.  That was not Paul’s intention; he was simply reiterating his previous point (see vs 24) – that sin is its own punishment, and that men’s and women’s bodies were degraded by their actions.

Vs 28 – 31 are the climax of this section of Paul’s argument.  In pointing to human wrongdoing he is demonstrating that God has ‘handed us over’ to our own devices and desires as punishment for exchanging the truth for a lie, the immortal God for the mortal creature.  He makes this point three times, each time expanding on his argument and building towards a crescendo.  He first pointed, in a general way to those who ‘degraded their bodies among themselves’ (vs 24).  Then, repeating “God handed them over to…” he points specifically to homosexual activity.  Finally, with great emphasis, he repeats his charge (they did not see fit to acknowledge God), repeats the consequence, (God handed them over) and then launches into his most complete castigation of sin anywhere, producing a vice list of 21 individual items, summarily described as “a debased mind” and “things that should not be done”.

Romans 1.18-32: Setting up the sting.  At this point, Paul’s congregation is in full agreement with him, nodding their heads vigorously, and loudly proclaiming “Amen!”  just as he intends that they should be – because he’s about to pull the rug from beneath their feet.  Many have noted the remarkable rhetorical power of Paul’s writing here, and the similarities with other scriptures[9], where people are brought through hearty agreement with the condemnation of others to condemn themselves: Romans 2:1 “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”  The whole argument concludes at 3:21-23; “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  Thus Paul concludes his case for the prosecution, declaring God righteous and all else sinful.  Only then does he go on to proclaim God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Now that we have seen the specific verses mentioning homosexuality in their context, we must ask how they function.  Richard Hays says that this passage

…sets up a homiletical sting operation.  The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality.  It whips the [Jewish] reader into a frenzy of indignation against others …but then, in Romans 2:1, the sting strikes. …the reader who joyfully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteous is “without excuse”…Consequently, for Paul, self-righteous judgement of homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behaviour itself.  …all of us stand in radical need of God’s mercy.[10]

Brighton agrees, adding

Any use of the Romans 1 material therefore as a club to belabour homosexual people in particular …runs in fact directly counter to the intention of the passage as a whole[11].  Such usage exhibits precisely what Paul saw as a characteristic and deadly blindness of religious people.  Paul, no more than Jesus, will allow Christianity to be a cover for people to say: “Them, those sinful people out there.”[12]

Whilst Paul’s intention in this passage is not to attack homosexuals, but those who see homosexuality as sinful[13], his point only makes sense if he agrees with what he writes here about homosexuality, and so we must take his words seriously.

Was Paul purely potting pederasty and prostitution?  The question is raised, however, that if Paul and the other Jews of his day were attacking the homosexuality they saw, as argued above, what would they have made of the homosexuality that we see today?  Are the evils of the exploitative homosexual relationships of that time generalisable to today?  Some think not, saying, “The homosexuality the New Testament opposes is the pederasty of the Greco-Roman culture”[14].  Others point out that there are many cultural assumptions that lie behind the condemnation of homosexuality that no longer hold good today; such as that homosexual behaviour rendered its participants sterile, or that everybody was heterosexually oriented and therefore going against their individual nature in enjoying homosexual sex, or that taking a ‘female’ role in sex is degrading for men because women are inferior, or that homosexuality would be attractive to everyone if unchecked, and lead to the extinction of the race[15].  For these reasons, and given that Paul was addressing sin in general rather than homosexuality in itself, they say we cannot take his apparent condemnation of homosexuality to be determinative for today.

The ‘tax-collector argument’  In supporting this kind of argument, some use the example of the tax-collector[16]; throughout the New Testament, tax collectors are seen as the epitome of social evil – which is why it is always shocking when Jesus favours them[17].  No-one argues that what they were doing was ok – they were clearly traitors, greedy, and considered altogether despicable.  Nor does anybody seriously claim that tax collectors today should be seen the same way – not because Jesus was nice to tax-collectors in biblical times, but because we don’t think that what tax collectors do today is the same as what they did then.  Their behaviour is different, even if they still have the same name, and, essentially, the same job.  And therefore we would no longer say someone is a sinner simply because they are a tax collector.  Just as you could say that the nature of tax collection now is completely different to the nature of tax collection then, it is argued that the nature of homosexual activity now (consenting and egalitarian) is completely different to the nature of homosexual acts then (demeaning and exploitative).

A Kiwi come-back:  One New Zealand writer who has addressed this issue, Chris Marshal[18], lists the objections to generalising the Romans material, and then responds to them.  His key points are as follows:

  • Specifically addressing the issue of whether it is possible to generalise Paul’s understanding of homosexuality to our situation, Marshall notes that if we are to disregard biblical teaching because it is shaped by the culture in which it arises, we would have no bible left – it is all shaped in important ways by the cultural context in which it was written.  If we were to disregard everything the bible says about sex, for instance, because it reflected the shape of the biblical cultures, we would have no standards for sex but those of our own society.  To rely upon our own understanding in such a significant matter is to choose wilful ignorance over the witness of scripture, and to place our own cultural prejudices and understandings (confused as they are) over our foundational document.[19]   Our task is to discern the ways in which the bible speaks to us through its cultural shape.
  • To those who argue that Romans only speaks against those who exchange natural for unnatural sex because they are heterosexuals who go against their heterosexual ‘nature’ by engaging in homosexual behaviour, he says they import into the scriptures a modern concept (that of homosexual orientation) that simply did not exist for the biblical writers; …as commentators almost universally agree, Paul uses the language of nature in v.27 to denote, not one’s in-born sexual disposition, but the intention of the Creator in making humankind as male and female[20].  In other words, it is wrong to think that ‘nature’ here refers to an individual predisposition; Paul is referring instead to a global human ideal.
  • to those who argue that Paul is condemning pederasty, not egalitarian sexual relationships, Marshal responds,

If Paul is thinking of pederasty, it is surprising that neither here nor elsewhere does Paul use one of the several words and phrases in common use at the time to refer to pederasty.  Instead of such specific identification in Romans 1, he speaks generally (in a phrase unique to Paul) of “males with males committing indecent acts”, not “men with boys” (as Plato is capable of saying).  The phrase “exchanged… the natural use” also suggests adult-adult sexual relations, not adult-child relations, while the phrases “toward one another”, “men with men” and “their error” all suggest reciprocal, consensual activity[21]

He goes on to suggest that the parallel condemnation of ‘unnatural’ female sexual relations suggests a generic condemnation of homosexual activity, especially since there was no recognised equivalent to male pederasty, thus female homosexual relations were mutual.

How might someone respond to Chris Marshall’s argument?  In considering these last points, some questions inevitably arise.  It is true that Paul’s language strongly suggests a universal condemnation of homosexual activity, but if pederasty was the universal model of homosexual relationship at the time, would Paul need to specify pederasty in order to be referring to it?  What else could he be talking about?  Even when pederastic relationships continued into adulthood, the evidence is that they stayed in the form of a pederastic relationship, with one partner taking a subservient role[22] – like a slave, a prostitute, or a woman would.  The phrase “males with males”, as has already been pointed out, is most likely intended to be an echo of the language of Genesis, rather than intended to provide a generic description of homosexual acts, though it may possibly be intended to include those few, and notorious[23], relationships where an adult male continued to take a subservient role.  The phrase “exchanged the natural use of” does suggest that adult sexual relationships were being substituted – but we should be wary of thinking about ancient marriage relationships as being like those we enjoy today.  For a Roman man of Paul’s day to exchange the ‘natural use’ of a woman for a boy is to exchange one social inferior for another, not an equal reciprocal relationship for an unequal one; so saying it is an ‘exchange’ does not necessarily imply that the relationship was consensual or reciprocal.  “Men with men” does sound like sex between equals, but the actual words are “Males with males” and so there is no way of assuming anything about the ages or relative maturity or social position of those referred to apart from what we know about the surrounding culture.  Plato talks of ‘men with boys’, but pederastic relationships normally extended into what, for Jews, constituted early adulthood.  Possibly, by using an age-neutral term, Paul was ensuring that he covered the range of behaviours ‘normal’ in his day.   “Toward one another” is the single phrase most suggestive of reciprocal lust – however, it was precisely the lust of the ‘beloved’ that rendered him notorious; where a young man sought out adult lovers or made themselves available, they were seen as promiscuous and immoral[24].  It was the role of the adult lover to seduce and persuade the boy into the relationship.  If Paul did, as seems most likely, have pederastic relationships in mind, then his depiction of both partners acting out of carnal desire presents them both in the worst possible light.  So although Marshall brings together some important observations about the way in which the passage seems to speak generally about homosexual behaviour, it can also be seen that it might still be speaking primarily or even exclusively of pederastic behaviour.

But then again… His comment about the parallel condemnation of ‘unnatural’ female sexual relations suggesting a generic condemnation of homosexual activity is, however, fairly indisputable.  Also, I would agree with Marshal and most others that Paul’s use of the word ‘nature’ should not be read as a reference to personal sexual orientation, but as a reference to God’s global creative intention.  However, that global intention is obviously expressed in the lives of individuals, so it is appropriate to say that Paul’s understanding is that all people are heterosexual, even though he would never have used that term.  Therefore the talk about ‘exchanging natural for unnatural’ sexual practices certainly implies this sort of understanding, even if Paul was not specifically interested in the psychological make-up of those he was talking about.  What is inappropriate is to assume that Paul was talking about heterosexuals in distinction to homosexuals.  It is probable that Paul had no concept of homosexuality as an abiding, fixed orientation[25] – though if you had suggested it to him, I doubt he would have been surprised; he was, after all, describing how humanity had fallen through refusing to honour our creator, and had been handed over to inordinate desires.  This is the Apostle who describes in such painful detail his experience of sin working in and through him against his will in Romans 7, and who saw the whole human race as enslaved to sin through our connection to the original sinner, Adam.  Certainly he was not blind to the place of sexual desire in the homoerotic relationships of his day.  Regardless of whether that desire arises from an innate orientation, or from wilfully perverted sexual thrill-seeking, he saw such desires, by contrast with God’s creation of male and female, as disordered and as evidence of the fallenness of creation.

[1] Some have argued from this that that the homosexuality that is being condemned here is that which is associated with pagan worship, however, I am not familiar with any material demonstrating that such worship actually took place, nor have I seen it referred to, and nor does Paul limit what he says to cultic contexts.

[2] (Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38a, Romans 1 – 8 1988) , (Marshall 2003, 8), (Hays 1996, 386) (Grenz 1998, 48 – 56) and (Stott 1994) argue for it’s importance, (Scroggs 1983, 116 – 117) and (Furnish 1994, 30 ) see it as significantly less important.

[3] (Arndt 1979) (Jewett 2007, 166 – 167)

[4] It was a commonplace of Hellenistic Jewish thought that vice is its own punishment; (Fitzmyer 1993, 288) notes (as does (Schreiner 1998, 97)) that Paul echoes Wis. 11.16 (and 12.27) which says, “One is punished by the very things with which he sins.”

[5] (Arndt 1979)

[6] (Hays 1996, 387)

[7] (Jewett 2007, 174), (Murray 1968, 47)

[8] Scroggs (1983, 115) notes that Paul’s inclusion of female homosexuality on the same terms as male is indicative of his basic perspective that Christ is more important than gender, and that in Jesus there is not “male and female” (Gal 3:28).  In this, he implicitly extends the Leviticus prohibitions to women.

[9] (Brighton 2003, 18) Notes the same sort of procedure in both Amos and in Nathan’s story of the lamb.

[10] (Hays 1996, 389)

[11] emphasis in the original

[12] (Brighton 2003, 19)

[13] He is not attacking them because they see homosexuality as sinful, but because they refuse to see their own sins.

[14] (Scroggs 1983, 84)

[15] (Furnish 1994, 26-28)

[16] This argument is proposed by (Lee, What I Believe n.d.)

[17] Matt 5:46; 9:9-11; 11:19; 17:24; 21:31-32; Luke 3:12; 15:1; 18:10-13; 19:1-9

[18] (Marshall 2003)

[19] Other writers also warn emphatically against allowing today’s cultural norms or ‘science’ to dictate to faith on this or other matters; (Torrance 2000) (Grenz 1998, 86-89).  A helpful text on this subject, related directly to the current debate, is Jones and Yarhouse’s book; Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate

[20] (Marshall 2003, 12)

[21] (Marshall 2003, 12)

[22] (Scroggs 1983, 17-62)

[23] This was notorious only where the male was a free-born citizen.  It was expected of slaves, regardless of their age.  Paul, who had pastoral care for slaves in the church, would see such use of them as equally evil, though his opinion would not be widely shared in society at the time.

[24] (Scroggs 1983, 42)

[25] Though Grenz points out that several ancient writers contemporary with and predating Paul proposed explanations of congenital homosexuality (Grenz 1998, 84-86)

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