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

The last argument against the traditional view is the best. I’ll never forget first coming across it as I was studying Romans 1 in my office and homosexuality 1wondering, “If this argument is correct, then the conservative church has a lot of rethinking to do.”

The argument goes like this. Paul does indeed prohibit all forms of homoeroticism. The question is why? Why does Paul think it’s wrong for men to have sex with men? Because this would force another man to give up his manly honor to act like a mere woman. I hope you can start to smell the implications brewing here. But if not, here’s a clear summary from 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 should also take Paul’s reason for those words as authoritative: women are passive, inferior, and have no right leaving their kitchens to play the role of the man; likewise, men have no right cooking, cleaning, and playing the passive role in sex—among other things that were designed for mere women to do.

Another major proponent of this view is James Brownson, who in his landmark work concludes: “Male-male sex in particular was ‘unnatural’ because it brownsondegraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245). This was “inherently shameful and degrading for a man to be reduced to the status of a female by playing the passive role in sexual intercourse” (Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245).

Again, if we take Paul’s words as authoritative, then it seems consistent to take his moral logic as authoritative as well.

But before we lock our wives in the kitchen with their bonnets and ankle-length dresses, are we sure that such shameful feminization of men was lurking behind Paul’s moral logic?

The feminization of the passive partner is well documented in the Greco-Roman culture. Suetonius sums up the view nicely, perhaps crudely, when he mentions Julius Caesar as “every woman’s man and every man’s woman,” referring to the Caesar’s role as the passive partner with the Bithynian king Nicomedes (Suet. Jul. 52.3). Cicero mocks Mark Antony for being a “common whore” and later a “wife” to Curio on the same grounds (Cic. Phil. 2.44-45). The impetus behind these critiques reveals the same assumption: Men should act like the superior men that they are, while women should remain in their inferior role as the receptive partner. When a man acts like a woman in intercourse, he looses his man card.

But does Paul share these assumptions? Does he believe, with Josephus, that women are “in all things inferior to the man” (Josephus, Ap. 2.24)? Would hesubmission-pat-robertson condemn gay sex because it stripped the passive partner of his male honor, lowering him to the status of a mere woman?

When I look at Romans 1, it’s not so clear. Paul grounds his moral logic in the creation account in Genesis 1-2 but does not clearly talk about the passive partner being feminized, nor does he inject his argument with all sorts of Neanderthal assumptions about female inferiority.

We could still salvage this argument if we could show that Paul elsewhere maintains such gender hierarchy, that women are inferior and passive to men and that men should therefore remain active in sexual encounters. A quick survey of Paul’s view of women—without opening up another debate—shows that contrary to the Jewish and Greco-Roman hierarchical view of gender, Paul exhibits a radically high view of women.

For instance, Paul breaks cultural codes by calling several women “co-workers” (Rom 16:3-4; Phil 4:3), “workers in the Lord” (Rom 16:6, 12) deacons (Rom 16:1-2; 1 Tim 3:11), prophets (1 Cor 11:5; cf. Acts 21:9), and he quite possibly calls Phoebe a “patron” (Rom 16:2) and Junia an “apostle” (Rom 16:7). In Christ there is neither “male nor female” (Gal 3:28) and women have just as much authority over their husbands’ bodies as their husbands have over theirs (1 Cor 7:3-5)—a revolutionary statement in its own right. Even if Paul advocates for different roles within the household (e.g. Eph 5:22-33), he commands men to self-sacrificially serve their wives and never, contra Josephus, suggests that females should submit to their husbands because they are inferior to men. Instead, Paul grounds these different but equal roles in the trinity.

Now, this is not the place to argue for or against women in pastoral leadership. Both complimentarian and egalitarian readings of Paul (most of them, at least) would acknowledge Paul’s strikingly high view of women in light of his cultural context. Yet Brownson and Brooten assume that Paul agrees with his Greco-Roman contemporaries that women are inferior and that this belief drives his moral logic for prohibiting homoerotic activity.

Unless Paul comes out and says explicitly that homoerotic behavior reduces the status of men in Romans 1—which many Greco-Roman writers did, but Paul does not—then there is little exegetical merit in assuming that homosexual activity “degraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” and thereby clothing him in “shame” (Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245). It does seem that Paul believed that homoerotic activity confused God-given gender roles. But there is no reason to assume that Paul upheld a socially constructed hierarchy in these roles that assumed a low view of women. Paul believed that women—like Priscilla and Junia—were equal to men.

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  1. “Unless Paul comes out and says explicitly that homoerotic behavior reduces the status of men in Romans 1—which many Greco-Roman writers did, but Paul does not—then there is little exegetical merit in assuming that homosexual activity “degraded the passive partner into acting like a woman” and thereby clothing him in “shame” (Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality, 245).”

    I disagree… actually it would make more sense that if Paul was straying from the standard cultural view at large, he would specify it, as not to be misunderstood. He does not do that here, so I would say it makes better sense that he assuming his audiences understanding, therefore there was no reason to preface or be explicit.

    Also, even if Paul has a higher view of women than his culture, that doesn’t mean he was consistent or wouldn’t still hold the cultural view around sexuality and thus tie that back creation. I would need more convincing on that one.

    At any rate, I still argue that there is an awful lot of ambiguity, so maybe there is a third option for the church to move forward in unity in.

  2. Hi Preston,

    Hmmm…Do Paul’s personal views matter in this particular part of the argument? He was meaning to offend his audience – to make the keepers of the law feel morally superior. He very well may have been playing on their prejudices in order to gin up the crowd (to then knock them down in Romans 2). He may or may not have shared those prejudices.

    And again I say…it’s impossible to have a complete theological exploration of the sinfulness of homosexuality without examining what the bible says about the relational nature of humankind. The clobber passages on their own don’t suffice. Sexuality is about so much more than the sex act. Theology should also speak to our questions about what it means to be human and the Christian expression of the human experience – not just about what lustful behaviors are proscribed.

    BTW – I’m not sure if I’m amused or offended by the picture you chose. Maybe a little of both.

    My best to you

    • Hey bro,

      I explored this argument in an earlier post (I forget where). The argument being that all the ethical stuff Paul says in 1:18-32 is to set up the moralist in 2:1ff. I think this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there’s a deeper rhetorical move going on. But this does not mean that Paul doesn’t believe (and was inspired to write about) the things he says in 1:18-32. Certainly, we would say that Paul would prohibit the idolatry in 1:23-25 and the list of vices in 1:28-32. Why not the stuff in 1:26-27?

      In any case, let’s say you’re right. Paul is simply sucking his audience into a Jewish way of thinking in order to confront them in 2:1. If we take this argument, this would exclude, I think two other non-traditional arguments: 1) that the homosexual sex spoken of in ch. 1 is a hyper-lustful, non-consensual sort, or 2) it’s only that type of sex that’s connected with idolatry.

      Personally, I think these latter two non-traditional arguments are stronger than the one that says Paul doesn’t really believe (or was inspired to write about) the things said in 1:26-27.


      • Well…I’m not following you. I don’t see these two as mutually exclusive: a) employing intentionally provocative rhetoric to agitate the audience and b) not referring to covenant relationships. I see no logical reason the former would preclude the latter.

        Ultimately, as I mentioned previously, I believe that Paul’s soaring language in Romans 1 does not describe the selfless coming together of two people in a covenant relationship (an expression of emotional and physical intimacy – not a shameful lust).

      • (following up to my previous comment)…

        By way of example, I’d restate my earlier analogy: A college professor bemoaning sexual promiscuity on campus might say “Today’s coeds are shamelessly oversexed”. Like Paul in Romans 1, that is a broad generalization used to make a point. The speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that all coeds are oversexed or that coeds having sex with their husband are shameless.

      • Preston,

        You wrote, “Certainly, we would say that Paul would prohibit the
        idolatry in 1:23-25 and the list of vices in 1:28-32. Why not the stuff in 1:26-27?”

        Of course, Paul would prohibit the stuff in 1:26-27. The stuff in 1:26-27 is idolatry motivated out of burning lust—and that’s the point. Excessive lust breeds idolatry which leads to all kinds of sin. The homoerotic activity in view in Romans 1 is a form of idolatry because it is motivated out of burning lust—these heterosexuals made an exchange in an effort to appease their burning lust. Idolatry emerging from this kind of lust is an example of sheer selfishness and is the antithesis of the type of self-sacrificial love we see between Christ and His Church. Idolatry does not emerge from a covenant relationship based on self-sacrificial love.

        See my post in reply to your post in your previous blog.

    • Shoot, sorry David about the picture! Which one? Both?

      Either way, I’m sorry. I usually pick pictures that are light, funny, or that are sarcastic toward my own tradition. But this isn’t the first time I’ve offended someone with my pics.

      Truly sorry.

  3. I think that the premise of this argument is a bit inconsistent to begin with. Why/how can Paul take the ‘cultural’ view of male active female passive sexuality and back it because homosexuality would take man out of his natural role, when Paul backs Jesus’ teaching about passivity/non-violence/submission to others, servant-leadership and husbands loving their wives like Christ the Church (and hence serving them). The man of the house kneeling to wash his wife’s feet as Jesus served his disciples surely would in that culture be almost as ‘shameful’ as the man taking the passive role in sexual relations?
    Does that line of thought make sense?

  4. Good thoughts, Joe!

    But actually, when other Greco-Roman authors played up the “feminization” moral logic, they made this very clear. (I’ve got a lot of quotes, but I same my ink unless you really want them.) But Paul doesn’t.

    And I hate to just repeat my argument, but I don’t see how Paul’s very high view of women elsewhere is irrelevant. So, logically:

    – Greco-Roman and Jewish writers explicitly condemn homosexual sex based largely on an inferior view of women.

    – Paul doesn’t specify why he prohibits homosexual sex
    – Paul has a very high view of women elsewhere

    I don’t see how this isn’t at least a decent argument.

    • Hey Preston,

      Thanks for the reply…

      “But actually, when other Greco-Roman authors played up the “feminization” moral logic, they made this very clear. (I’ve got a lot of quotes, but I same my ink unless you really want them.) But Paul doesn’t.”

      Fair enough, but for what purpose were they writing? When other Greco-Roman writers write against homoeroticism do they always explain why? Is Paul an outlier in that he doesn’t?

      I guess all I am saying with regards to Paul’s view of women is that just because he revolutionized the view in some ways doesn’t mean he did in all ways. He still seemed to take issue with women showing dominance and leadership over men in some contexts… so I am saying that in that vein it still seems precarious…

      Sure, it is a decent argument, but aren’t the last two non-traditonalist arguments? Is it enough to make a definitive condemnation? I just don’t think that it is…

    • Also, if I understand the line of reasoning here…

      Paul isn’t saying that Homoerotic behavior is morally wrong because it feminizes/shames the passive male partner (making him take on the role of a women), but he is saying that it is wrong because it confuses the gender roles assigned by God at creation (presumably by making one of the men act as a women?)…

      I guess I don’t see how the two are different… If Paul believes it confuses the Gender roles, how does it confuse them?

      Also, what does he mean by by “shameful” acts? I’m just sort of thinking out loud about that, but it seems to point back toward the feminization “reason”.

  5. I think there is a flaw in the basis for this argument. Why would Paul be taking the ‘cultural’ view of masculinity and sexual relations in terms of masculinity and dominance/activity over submissive and passive femininity? On a multitude of other issues Paul follows Jesus’ view teaching men (and women) to be passive/non-violent/submissive to others in the face of violence and other demands, and Paul teaches for men to serve and love their wives as Christ the Church, giving himself for her in the most selfless ways. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, a very shameful/submissive thing to do in that culture, right? Yet Paul would take the reverse view when it comes to male sexuality? Seems inconsistent.

    Am I thinking clearly here?

  6. Hi Preston –

    More grist for the mill….

    You say: “The last argument against the traditional view is the best.” I’d say that this is not nearly the last argument. There’s some major stuff regarding this text still to be considered.

    The traditionalist reading of Romans 1 pathologizes people who are gay. From this fact flows two important theological questions:

    1. How do we interpret the bible in the light of new scientific information?

    As we learn more about God’s creation, should we just ignore that information? For example, are young earth creationists right to reject science that contradicts the 6,000 year old earth of the bible?

    Every major medical association asserts that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality. The traditionalist’s understanding of Paul’s language – that homosexuality per se is unnatural – has been refuted. There are some people that say we don’t really know what causes homosexuality, so we don’t have enough information to claim homosexuality is innate or immutable; therefore we can’t claim it isn’t a pathology. That’s a very weak argument. We know that orientation change is exceedingly rare (or impossible) and only slight movement on the spectrum of sexuality has occurred for highly motivated individuals. The presumed factors that determine sexuality are very similar to the factors that determine handedness. Today, the Church no longer pathologizes left handedness. Why then, do we continue to pathologize homosexuality? Considering the deleterious effects of traditionalist doctrine on people who are gay, are traditionalists morally justified in rejecting the science?

    2. How do we treat scripture and theology (such as the traditionalist reading of Romans 1) that diminishes the humanity of entire people groups?

    Church tradition has a really poor track record in this regard; it has been the cause of great injustice. For example, there is overwhelming biblical support for slavery, there is credible biblical support for segregation, and there is credible biblical support for the subjugation of women. Our contemporary understanding of the faith (mostly) rejects these theologies because they diminish the dignity of the person and are contrary to the concept of Imago Dei. So regarding Romans 1: Is the church morally justified in holding a theological position that homosexuality is a pathology – i.e., that gay people like me are somehow inferior or sick?

    What are your thoughts?

    Best –

    • “2. How do we treat scripture and theology (such as the traditionalist reading of Romans 1) that diminishes the humanity of entire people groups?”

      David, this is HUGE in my mind and heart, and I think it is a very valid question. Is there a Gospel truth that speaks to this? It reminds me of the story of the disciples “picking grain” on the Sabbath, and Jesus response with the story of David and his men eating the temple bread.

      Not only does/has this doctrine diminished the humanity of an entire group(s) of people, much damage has been done by and because of this doctrine. The number of stories, and I am sure you could tell yours, as I could tell mine, are numerous.

      I mean what does one make of a doctrine that drives some of God’s children into emotional despair or even to take there own lives? At some point and on some level, that needs to be wrestled with, and I personally think, the institutional church is going to have to own and address it if there is ever to be widespread reconciliation with the overall GLBT community.


    • Hey David,

      Man, these are good questions and I’ll need to keep wrestling with what I believe about the issues you raise. So, take my response here as sort of “thinking out loud” as I process your comments.

      Let me start with your 2.

      I think you’re making several assumptions here. First, I’d rather not broad brush all traditionalists into one single “reading.” Can we talk in terms of traditional “readings?” Second, the language of “diminishing humanity” seems loaded to me. For the sake of the argument, if someone says that humanity’s sexual impulse and desires have been influenced by the fall, this doesn’t therefore diminish their humanity. Would you agree with this? (Not so much the theological claim, but the logic.) Third, I think you’re making many assumptions about what the Bible says about slavery, women, and segregation (and I would add violence here). Much more nuance is needed here, and Paul Copan (“Is God a Moral Monster?”) and William Webb (“Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals”–or something like that) have thoroughly considered these questions and have shown convincingly, I believe, that these are not all 1-1 parallels. The NT, at least (and portions of the OT), would look like a feminist manifesto from the 60’s when compared to their own cultural contexts. Anyway, that’s another discussion. But I’d recommend looking into these parallels much more closely before you compare them to homosexuality. And BTW, I’d never say that gay and lesbians are “sick” or “inferior.” I would say that no person on earth has a sexuality that has not been attacked and hijacked by the Fall. And this is manifested in different ways.

      Your number 1 raises good questions that I’m not skilled enough to answer. Or answer in detail or to your satisfaction. So let me just make some comments and raise some questions.

      First, science does not speak authoritatively to morality. It can explain why some people are more, say, controlling (Type A, or whatever), but it can’t speak definitely or authoritatively to whether crack being controlling is wrong. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is not really debated, right? (That science doesn’t determine the morality of certain acts.) Science can’t tell us, i.e., whether divorce is morally okay. Etc.

      So, when “Every major medical association asserts that homosexuality is a natural variation of human sexuality,” this doesn’t mean that it’s therefore morally right. Much of the same science is founded upon naturalistic assumptions, right? I’m not saying that it’s all bad and that the earth is therefore flat after all! But I think we have to be careful taking the claims of a discipline with naturalistic assumptions (that if it is “natural” then it’s okay) and apply them to religion without a thick filter. Again, the divorce example applies here as well. I’m pretty sure that science would say that if a couple fell out of love, and they don’t have any kids, they should get divorced. It would be unhealthy–unnatural–for two people who don’t love each other to stick it out and be miserable.

      Also, in terms of the irreversibility of orientation, you’re thinking of males right? From the stuff I’ve read, it’s a bit more complex for lesbians.

      One more. Re: the “cause” of SSA, everything I’ve read says that it’s not biologically determined as much as it’s a blend of nature and nurture. Most of the time, people are attracted to the same gender not completely because of nature or nurture, but a blend of both. But even still, I am biologically determined to pursue all sorts of things that may or may not be pleasing to God, but this doesn’t mean I should pursue them. I know, I know. This is an old fashioned, fundy argument. But I’ve yet to see someone refute it convincingly while maintaining a biblical view of depravity.

      Love to hear your thoughts, Dave. Thanks again for your great thoughts and always challenging me to think through this issue!


  7. Reading the verses this article interprets, I don’t see where you got your interpretation, except from colleagues. The degradation comes from the giving up of the natural for the unnatural. While there is ongoing debate about the source of attraction (another talk for another time), the sexual act is geared toward creation. Sex between two people of the same gender eliminates the natural goal of sex. That’s why same-gender sex is unnatural, and that’s why Paul speaks against it.

  8. Preston,
    your series is amazing, but I feel like this post was cut short. the burning question in my mind is still “why?” why is gay marriage wrong? what makes it sinful? how is it possible for someone to be born with these desires and be forbidden to marry someone they love? What about gay Christians who want to be married? I’ve read all twenty blogs in this series and still don’t have an answer to those questions.

    • Thanks Anna! Unfortunately, you may have to wait until my book to get the answers 🙂 We’ll see. In the blog, I only wanted to “test drive” some thoughts about what the Bible says about homosexuality in the most explicit passages. I may revisit some of these other questions later, but we’ll see.

    • I am with Anna on this. Yes, you are an exegete, and it is good to know what the Bible says: but so what? How should the straight pastor counsel the gay church-member? How should the gay Christian behave?