This entry is part [part not set] of 20 in the series Homosexuality in the Bible

We now come to the most important passage in our study of homosexuality. It’s the only passage that describes homosexual romans_001activity in any detail, and unlike every other passage that mentions same sex intercourse, Romans 1 talks about both gay and lesbian sex. After describing humanity’s fall into idolatry (Rom 1:18-23), Paul writes:

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (1:24-27)

Being raised in a conservative Christian environment, I assumed that my study of Romans 1 would take about 30 minutes, since its condemnation of homosexuality was as clear as day. Well, I was wrong. After looking closely at the text, I’ve seen that Romans 1 is about as clear as a foggy morning. However, as I continue to study the passage, the sun is beginning to break through the dim mist and shed light on this crucial passage.

Scholars have offered at least 5 arguments against a traditional reading of Romans 1, and all of them find a degree of support in the text. Let me repeat: There are arguments gleaned from the text of Scripture (not just the presupposition of the author) that Romans 1 does not condemn all forms same-sex relations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bible believing Christians can disagree with these conclusions, but until we actually refute the textual arguments used to support those conclusions, we’ll give the impression that we care more about what we want to believe rather than what the Bible actually says. Rather than witnessing the sun knife its way through the fog, we’ll remain in our PJ’s basking in the bright lights of our living room. Being biblical requires a lot of hard work, especially when it comes to tough passages like Romans 1.

So, here are the five best arguments used to refute a traditional reading of Romans 1. Keep in mind, some of these arguments mutually exclude the other four, while some of the arguments may supplement the others.

First, Romans 1 does not consider homosexual acts to be inherently sinful. Rather, Paul has in mind excessive lust and illicit same-sex activity (sex outside of marriage, sex with boys, orgies, etc.). After all, Paul explicitly describes the sin as “shameful lusts” (v. 26) by people who were “inflamed with lust for one another” and committed “shameful acts with other men” (v. 27). Paul does not have in mind loving, consensual, monogamous sex between partners of the same sex.

Second, Paul thinks that same-sex activity may be “dirty” but not sinful. That is, according to his Jewish upbringing, same-sex activity was a taboo, a violation of ritual purity (e.g. Lev 18:22) but it wasn’t inherently sinful. To support this reading, scholars often point out that the whole argument of Rom 1:18-32 is a trap for his Jewish opponent. Paul nabs him in Rom 2:1 when he turns the tables around: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” In sum, Paul assumes a Jewish view of “purity” in Romans 1 to get his opponent on his side before he punches him in the nose in Romans 2. Paul, therefore, reveals nothing about whether same sex activity is sinful or not.

Third, Paul doesn’t actually condemn same sex activity committed by those whose orientation is toward the same sex. Look at what Paul says! “Women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (v. 26) and that men “abandoned natural relations with women” (v. 27). Paul doesn’t have gay people in mind; rather, he’s prohibiting homosexual sex by heterosexual people, since gay and lesbian people don’t “exchange” heterosexual sex for homosexual sex. They simply pursue homosexual sex because that’s the way they’re wired.

Fourth, the type of homosexual activity Paul has in mind in Romans 1 is linked to idolatry. This argument carries with it the clearest textual support, since Rom 1:23 explicitly talks about idolatry, and the stuff going on in 1:24-27 is clearly linked to that idolatry. So, again, Paul only prohibits same-sex activity that is linked to idolatry and therefore does not condemn non-idolatrous and monogamous same sex relations.

Lastly, Paul actually does condemn all forms of same sex activity. Idolatrous or not, impure or pure, whether committed by gay or straight individuals. Paul believes all of it is wrong. The question is: why? Why does Paul believe that same-sex intercourse is wrong? Because it feminizes the passive partner (in male-male sex) or it forces a woman to act as a man (for female-female sex). And this is wrong for Paul and for his Greco-Roman audience because women were inferior. In the words of Bernadette Brooten: “Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations” (Brooten, Love Between Women, 216, 302, 303). So, if the church wants to take Paul’s words as authoritative, then it also should take Paul’s reason for those words as authoritative: women are passive, inferior, and have no right to leave their kitchens and play the role of the man. This is why Brooten concludes: “I hope that churches today, being appraised of the history that I have presented, will no longer teach Rom 1:26f as authoritative” (ibid., 302).

I could cite several other arguments against a traditional reading of Romans 1, but these 5 are the most popular and, to my mind, the most persuasive. Over the next five posts, however, I’ll show why I am not persuaded by these five arguments. Some of them are actually quite bad and I hope that you can see why. Others—especially the last one—are good and I’ve had to wrestle with them a bit more thoroughly. But even the last argument misses at least two very important things in this passage and that’s why it doesn’t carry as much weight as it may seem, as I’ll show in a later post.

For my next post, we’ll tackle the first argument above.

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  1. Hi Preston,

    How can you be certain that Romans 1 is speaking of lesbian sex? Isn’t it reasonable that it’s talking about sodomy? If the act of sodomy among men is “an abomination” according to Leviticus, then wouldn’t women “exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” be sodomy with men? They gave up natural sexual relations and allowed themselves to be sodomized. And “in the same way” men abandoned natural
    relations with women and allowed themselves to be sodomized.

    Again, I must ask, why can’t Christian gay men and women pursue marriage/partnership without the act of sodomy in their relationship?

    • Hey Julie,

      Good questions. Without getting too explicit, can you define what you mean by “sodomy?” The term has been used differently.

      In any case, it does seem clear to me that Paul has lesbian sex in view for two reason. First, the use of “unnatural” was commonly used by Greco-Roman writers to refer to lesbian sex. And second, Paul’s use of “in the same way” (or “likewise”) in v. 27 connects Paul’s clear description of gay sex to lesbian sex. Now, there has been a couple scholars who have argued that homoesxual sex is not in view at all in Rom 1:26-27 but their arguments have not been convincing to most traditional or non-traditional interpreters (for lack of better terms). Even Bernadette Brooten (the expert on ancient lesbianism) says that Paul is clearly referring to lesbian sex in v. 26.

      To answer your question at the end: nothing! Unless of course God through his word prohibits it (assuming that we take Scripture as an inspired moral guide). That’s fair, right?

      • Hi Preston,
        I don’t think we can dismiss Julie’s point so easily. If I recall correctly, many believers in the early church, Augustine in particular, interpreted verse 26 to mean women engaging in anal sex with men. “In the same way”, then, meant men engaging in anal sex with each other. Augustine’s was an early natural law argument which also renders anal sex (and other non-procreative sex acts) sinful even in the context of heterosexual marriage.

      • What I mean by “sodomy” comes from “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female.” It would seem that “lying with a female” suggests the act of penetration meant for procreation. So, sodomy, to me, means anal sex, which is penetration that does not lead to procreation.

        In Romans 1, isn’t the idea here that they exchanged the Judaic understanding of the purpose of sex (procreation) [exchanged natural function of the woman] for behaviors which cannot produce children [that which is unnatural]? Wasn’t “unnatural” also used
        to refer to sex with a barren or pregnant woman, sex with a menstruating woman, pederasty, and sex between animals of different species? Do you admit that it’s possible “unnatural”
        could refer to anal sex? Isn’t it too ambiguous for one to claim one knows exactly what Paul means here (i.e. lesbianism) beyond a shadow of a doubt?

        You mention Brooten, an expert on ancient lesbianism. Isn’t it true that she admits that some interpretations of this verse from the first few centuries of the church have not seen this passage as talking about lesbianism, but instead about non-procreative sex
        (i.e. Clement of Alexandria, Anastasios, Augustine)?

        You say Paul’s use of “in the same way” in v. 27 connects Paul’s clear description of gay sex to lesbian sex. That’s basically what I’m saying. Paul’s use of “in the same way” in v. 27 connects Paul’s clear description of the act of sodomy (anal sex) to v. 26, which would mean he’s talking about an act of sodomy in v. 26.

        Again, if Scripture prohibits solely sodomy (anal sex) and nothing else, gay Christians can pursue same-sex partnerships with God’s

        • Julie, wow, you’ve done your homework! Much of what you say is correct; namely, the fact that early church fathers (e.g. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria) did not see Rom 1:26 as talking about lesbian sex. However, there are a good deal of Greco-Roman references to lesbian sex as “unnatural” simply because they assumed that one of the female partners assumed the role of the man. I don’t recall seeing the combination of “woman” with “unnatural” when used in reference to heterosexual anal sex. If I remember correctly, the rabbis were fine with heterosexual anal sex–or at least some of them were.

          However, you bring up a good point about the priority of procreation. Certainly, this was a big deal in the sexual ethics of Judaism. My only point would be that Paul, in all of his talk of sexual ethics (1 Cor 7; 1 Thess 4; et al.), he never made procreation a big deal. So, I think this is one area where Paul departs from his Jewish friends and therefore can’t be read into being one of the reasons for his prohibitions of gay/lesbians sex in Rom 1.

          • Good point, Paul really didn’t seem to make procreation a big deal in his writings, which would suggest to me that procreation isn’t God’s primary purpose of marriage. I suspect God’s primary purpose for marriage relates to covenant relationship with or without procreation.

            But I’m not saying that this is “a reason” for Paul’s alleged prohibition of gay/lesbian sex in Romans 1. I’m saying Paul’s choice of wording is an expected result of Paul’s Jewish background. Thus, the phrase “the natural function of the woman” simply means “the procreative function of the woman” (which must include penetration by a male to be effective). This “function” was exchanged for something “unnatural” (i.e. dysfunctional). Anal sex with a woman would be the antithesis to that which makes use of the procreative function since anal sex is “dysfunctional” in that it cannot lead to procreation.

            A further underlying point I glean is a parallel between v. 25 exchanging the Creator (“the truth”) for the creature/idol (“a lie”) with v. 26 exchanging the natural/procreative function (the truth) for the unnatural (a lie). The physical exchange of “the natural” for “the unnatural” is a manifestation of the spiritual exchange of the Creator for the creature. What is “spiritually” going on within man’s heart is the exchange of the Creator for the creature and what in reality is going on (what physically manifests) is a literal exchange of the natural function (“the truth”) for the antithesis of that (“a lie”). I see such a deliberate exchange by these heterosexual idolaters as their outward expression of rejecting God as the truth. Obviously, not all idolaters manifest their “spiritual exchange” in this way. However, the parallel made sense in Paul’s day and was useful in making his point.

            These folks made a grave error when they chose not to retain the knowledge of God and instead adhere to a lie. The penalty of their “error” (v. 27) is the result of exchanging that which is true for that which is a lie. The penalty is God giving them over to a depraved mind to do all the things listed in Rom. 1:29.

            So, in response to your comment to JTobias as to why Paul wouldn’t consider Rom. 1:26-27 in his “sin list” in Rom. 1:29, I would suggest that the “sin list” is the outcome of Rom. 1:26-27. Rom. 1:26-27 is an “error” (the error of exchanging the truth for a lie) that led to various sins.

            Because I am reading the material this way, I am left to wonder how this has anything to do with gay covenant relationships. Whether one comes to the conclusion that these idolatrous women were engaging in sexual acts with one another rather than engaging in anal sex, the point Paul is making has nothing to do with sex within gay covenant relationships.

            A couple other points. We don’t see gay Christians “burning with desire toward one another” (v. 27) any more than we see straight Christians “burning with desire toward one another.” This phrase used by Paul sounds like an almost abnormal degree of desire that one doesn’t see in normal, monogamous relationships (gay or straight).

            Also, when do we see gay Christians in monogamous relationships given over to be filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, etc., etc.? Shouldn’t we know a tree by its fruit? Should we place our interpretations (esp. when the material is so ambiguous) as authoritative even when our interpretations contradict the obvious reality of the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of professing (gay) Christians?

  2. Hi Preston,
    It’s puzzling to me why Paul apparently brings up homosexuality in the first place and what his purpose is in using homosexuality in this context. He starts with God’s revelation of his invisible attributes to all people, so that people are without excuse. He then goes on to describe people’s idolatry. So far so good. But then Paul states that God gave them over to dishonor their bodies among themselves.
    So, is Paul saying that all people (even today for the non-Christian) harbor dishonorable sexual passions? Do all people have this depraved mind, who are inflamed with passions to commit unnatural sexual acts?
    This seems like a stretch. That’s not the way I have experienced the distribution of homosexuality in the communities in which I’ve lived. I don’t see a correlation between a person’s propensity to engage in idolatry and their sexual orientation. I don’t see the cause and effect.
    Do you know what’s going on here with Paul’s theology in the context of this overall argument? For example, is he using homosexuality for shock value as the most outrageous consequence of idolatry? Is he using homosexuality as an example of the very worst shame that can arise out of the practice of idolatry? Or is there something else going on here?

    • Jean, very good questions! I love to see people wrestle with the text!

      I’m not sure I can answer all your questions, but here are some thoughts. You said: ” I don’t see a correlation between a person’s propensity to engage in idolatry and their sexual orientation.” Ya, I think Paul is speaking about his own situation, or more specifically, the situation in Rome to whom he’s writing. In any case, notice that Paul defines idolatry very broadly as turning from the Creator toward the creation.

      As far as why Paul brings it up here, I would suggest that it’s because he simply felt that his audience needed to hear this (and yet his audience in, say, Philippi or Thessalonica didn’t). Homoeroticism was much more prevalent in cities like Rome or Corinth and that’s why Paul mentions it in his letters to those cities. Much like today. If I wrote a letter to a church in LA vs. writing a letter to a church in Amarillo, TX, I’d probably address different things depending on the need.

      Not sure if this answers some of your questions. Sometimes it’s tough to figure out exactly “why.” The important thing is to figure out the “what”–what is the passage saying.

      • Hey Preston,

        “Homoeroticism was much more prevalent in cities like Rome or Corinth and that’s why Paul mentions it in his letters to those cities.”

        I still think this leaves the question a little ambiguous, because regardless of where you land on what this passage means for homosexuals today, the argument that Paul is using this as a trap for his Jewish opponent is fairly compelling. As I recall this was how this passage was treated in my Romans and Galatians class at Cedarville. Paul is certainly not saying anything good about homoerotic behavior here, but it does not appear clear (to me anyhow) that he is making a corrective statement, or blanket moral statement, but rather pulling from the example from the Rome, which the audience would be familiar with, and using it to make his more important point… If he wanted to address this head on, he would have, but that is not what he is doing.

        I find this the hardest passage for the “gay-affirming” position to wrestle with. Where I am at though, and why I land where I do, is that I am not convinced that Paul is making a blanket moral statement here, he is merely stating an already held belief, as part of a larger argument That taken with other aspects of the Gospel etc, I air on the side of grace. I wouldn’t argue that this passage is pro-gay, I don’t think it is; I just don’t think that, taken in context, it is clear enough that Paul is making a moral statement that is not time bound open to change, whatever you want to say.

        I mean, even you acknowledge that this passage isn’t as clear as it may seem, I am just not willing to let myself and other suffer as they do for something that may not mean what we think it does. So anyhow, for whatever that is worth. That is my two cents. 🙂

        • Joe, your honest reflections are a breath of fresh air! Thanks for weighing in. And Romans/Galatians at Cedarville…that was C. Miller, right? Man, I miss that guy!

          So it sounds like you’re leaning towards argument #2. And I see a lot of merit in this view and in a sense, it’s correct. Paul does use the stuff in Rom 1 as a rhetorical trap for his moral Jewish opponent. However, this doesn’t in itself mean that Paul doesn’t see the stuff in 1:26-27, or the stuff in 1:28-32, as real sins that he himself would condemn. Certainly, we would say that Paul agrees with the sins mentioned in 1:29ff (that they are sinful); if so, then why not the things mentioned in 1:24-27?

          In any case, it is a tough passage in the sense that when you look at it hard enough, you see questions that aren’t clearly answered in the text. I appreciate your sensitivity to the complexities in this passage, Joe.

          • I suppose it’s hard for us 21st century people to interpret the verses b/c Paul didn’t necessarily write for us who live thousands of years in the future. He could’ve assumed his audience then knew what he was talking about. Hard, but not impossible.

          • Thanks for your kind words. Yep C Miller, great guy, I took a few of his classes and enjoyed them all. I think that Romans and Galatians class was one of my favorites during college.

            Ya, I sort of hold more to a combination of number two and your last point. I don’t think I would say that Paul didn’t see homoerotic behavior as sinful, he probably did. However, I think that in determining if it is still applicable today we have to understand why. (Which is why I take issue to your statement that the important thing is what he actually said.) The why questions is where I think things become more convoluted, and since it does not seem clear to me that there is any reason to think that this is a “timeless truth” I air on the side of grace on the issue.

            That is obviously a simplification of my position, but you get the idea. I guess I sort of treat this like I treat Paul’s directions on the role of women in the church, etc. I would also maybe say that these two issues almost go hand in hand in their reasons for not really be applicable today.

            So at any rate, Happy Halloween!