I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve received emails from strangers who upon finding this ministry online have included a cut and paste of Romans 1:26-27 in the body of the email, as if that’s all they need to say to prove their view that the Bible condemns homosexuality. I would suspect that those four verses have been quoted to nearly after GLBTQ Christian from once to a thousand times. There’s little question these two verses don’t sound particularly favorable concerning sexual relations between people of the same gender, and they aren’t favorable but for reasons that hinge on the world view at the time of Paul’s writing around human sexuality and gender roles which is another world, literally, from that of our own.
But even before looking at those verses we need to recognize that 1:26-27 don’t stand alone and when people quote them as though it’s the definitive word on a biblical condemnation of homosexuality then they’re engaging in the practice of proof-texting. Simply, proof-texting is when an individual scripture or selection of scriptures is used to support a position without regard for the context that held the scripture, often giving the words of the scripture different meaning than was the original intent of the writer. To use any scripture to support ones own ideology without consideration of the context in which it’s placed and the intent of the writer dishonors the scripture as a whole.
INTENTION AND CONTEXT OF ROMANS 1
Christianity had begun to grow in Rome and was comprised of both Gentile and Jewish believers. Though Paul had never been to the church in Rome, he mentions in the opening that while he has intended many times to come to them, he expresses hope that he might visit them soon. In the meantime, Paul sends this letter to the church in Rome that lays out Paul’s theology and the great themes of the Gospel. Most would consider the Book of Romans to be Paul’s most complete theological statement.
In the first three chapters Paul makes a strong case for the need of all people, both Jew and Gentile, to establish their faith in Jesus Christ. In Chapter 1 Paul speaks to the Jews of the sin of the Gentiles which they seem to have initially reported to him that resulted in this reply. In Chapter 2 Paul turns on the Jews and highlights their sin. In Chapter 3 Paul reaches the conclusion that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (vs. 23, 24). This would seem to be Paul’s ultimate intention; to assert the need of all people to experience salvation by the Gospel message and the availability that Gospel to all, Gentile or Jew, male or female, slave or free.
Paul was writing to a specific people in a specific time. There’s no indication anywhere in Paul’s own words that as he wrote it was the entire world and with all time in mind. Paul was clueless than thousands of years later Christians would be reading his words, much less that they would be held within a canon along side the Torah. Paul’s focus was on the church in Rome and grounding them in the Gospel. In Romans 1 Paul is writing to a primarily Jewish audience (seen in his references to the Gentiles as they and them) and addresses the cause of the Gentiles ethnic impurity which is idolatry. Romans 1 is a story about the origin and consequences of idolatry.
In committing idolatry the Gentile people had dishonored God and in response God turns them over to dishonor themselves. The people actively chose to engage in one sin, that being idolatry, but from that point on it was God who gave them over to other sins as a penalty for the original great offense. Before jumping into the eye of the storm (verses 26-27) take a minute to read verses 21 through 31 as I’ve provided here so you can more clearly see the pattern included in the text.
The Sin: For although 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 exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.(verses 21-23)
The Penalty: Therefore (on account of) God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the dishonoring of their bodies with one another. (verse 24)
The Sin: because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. (verse 25)
The Penalty: For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (verses 26-27)
The Sin: And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God…(verse 28a)
The Penalty: God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (verses 28b-31)
Returning again to verses 26-27, we need to be honest enough to say we don’t know exactly what Paul meant or what Paul might have thought concerning our current day understanding of homosexuality. We know however that Paul was a Jew and that the emphasis on purity in Leviticus were part of Paul’s thinking, as was the Greco-Roman world view in which he lived. Paul’s understanding about sexuality didn’t stand outside of all that but was greatly shaped by all that surrounded him. It seems more than evident that in verses 26-27 Paul has a negative view of homoeroticism and while we can’t know with any precision what Paul meant, we can make several general assumptions:
- Unnatural (para physin) is better understood as that which is out of the ordinary or beyond the ordinary rather than as perversion.
- Sex was for the purpose of procreation and had to include a dominant partner (male) and a passive partner (female). Anything that didn’t meet that normative form was para physin.
- One of the men in a same-sex encounter would dishonor himself by assuming the role of the passive partner and lowering his status to that of a woman. The other man brought dishonor on himself by allowing his kinsman to assume the role of the passive partner.
- Paul, as his contemporaries, saw all passions as uncontrolled and negative. As a result passion was always dishonorable and would obviously result in being consumed by it. The passion that a husband might have for his wife would be seen as equally negative. Paul’s not so much interested in condemning homo-erotic behavior but uncontrolled passions and lack of moderation.
- In the ancient world there was no understanding of a homosexual orientation or a heterosexual orientation for that matter. Paul saw idolatry as the cause of same-sex eroticism rather than a person’s sexual orientation or even as a human choice. It was a penalty exacted by God on the idolatrous Gentiles.
- Unnatural relations for women could refer to any sexual activity where procreation wasn’t a possibility. This could include sex during menstruation, anal sex or homoeroticism. Unnatural relationship for women could also refer to any sexual activity that was beyond the ordinary. Because women were expected in every sexual encounter to be the passive partner it would be against nature for a woman to be the aggressor in a heterosexual encounter or to take the dominant role in sex with another woman.
There are those who use this chapter to condemn homosexuality but in doing so they’re choosing to emphasize wrongly one portion of a progressive descent into sin by a particular people whose original sin was idolatry. Remember that everything that follows their adulterous practices are a direct result of God giving them up to behaviors that would cause them to dishonor themselves. Their deliberate choice was to practice idolatry but the rest was punishment imposed on them by God.
I would propose that this passage does not speak of gay men and lesbians within our culture but to the Gentile idolaters located in Rome. If anyone uses this passage as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality within our current world, believing that Paul is addressing the universal fall of humanity and homosexuality in particular then they must accept the full argument, which would include the following:
- There was a time when the entire world was monothestistic and one set moment in time when polythesim and idolatry came into the world.
- That up until that one moment there was no such thing as homo-erotic attraction or same-sex sexual relations.
- That there was no homosexual activity or attraction among the Jewish people since the Jews were set outside of those to whom Paul was speaking of in Romans 1.
- That were there to be no idolatry in the world, all homosexuality would disappear since idolatry is the cause and homosexuality a consequence.
- Everyone who is gay or lesbian is that way because God made them to be homosexual because of the sin of idolatry. Homosexuality at this point ceases to be either a sexual orientation OR a choice.
- Everyone who is gay and lesbian is without faith and hates God, including those who proclaim Jesus as their Savior, whether they are practicing homosexuals or living as celibates within the church community.
For those of you who are gay and lesbian and continue to struggle with this passage I’d encourage you to consider these three points explicitly stated in Romans One and ask yourself some questions to see if Paul is referring to you in this writing.
- Did you practice idolatry prior to your first awareness of your homosexuality?
- Do you remember a fixed moment in time when you felt your heterosexuality (an exclusive attraction to the opposite sex) was replaced with homosexuality (an exclusive attraction to the same sex)?
Are you filled with hate for God? Do you manifest the following in your life: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slanderer, insolent, haughty and boastfulness? Are you an inventor of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless?
- Would you describe your relationship with the person you love as centered solely in uncontrolled passions and lust?
For this passage to be speaking of all gays and lesbians and more specifically of you, you have to be able to answer in the affirmative to every question. If you answer no to any or all of them then perhaps it’s time to let go of this passage as being what stands between reconciling your faith and sexuality. While there’s a clearly negative word here regarding homoeroticism, it’s exclusively a punishment of God for idolaters in Paul’s understanding and so remains an empty closet for those of us today who are gay and lesbian and continue to worship God and God alone.
She has spent nearly 30 years in pastoral ministry.
©2010 Anita Cadonau-Huseby. All rights reserved.
Used with Permission and Much Gratitude
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