This is a study of the reference to same-sex intercourse within Romans 1:26-27, which I'll explore within the larger, semi-self-contained parameters (the 'pericope') of verses 24-32. As you can probably tell already, this is a fairly academic study, since I'm adapting it from a paper I wrote in seminary. It's not my normal writing style, but I hope you can still find it useful.
The study is divided into three parts: 1) the textual setting of Romans 1:24-32, 2) the socio-historical setting of First-Century Palestine, and 3) the cultural setting of 21st-Century America.
Romans 1:24-32 (TNIV)
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 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.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
The Textual Setting of Romans 1:24-32
The pericope of Romans 1:24-32 is barely discernible as such. It sits within a larger section of text, from 1:18 to 3:20, devoted to implications of guilt, the first in Paul’s string of arguments. Paul begins this argument by describing the basis for humanity’s guilt in 1:18-23. “Therefore,” begins verse 24, referencing the aforementioned and indicating that what follows is the consequence of this guilt. The phrase “God gave them over” appears three times in these nine verses, each time introducing another manifestation of humanity’s idolatry. 1:18-23 is concerned with the what and who of this trespass, and 1:24-32 is concerned with the how. At the other end of this pericope, verse 32 ends the chapter before 2:1 picks up with a direct, second-person perspective and another “therefore” progression of thought.
This pericope, 1:24-32, is primarily concerned with the manifestations of disloyalty to God. Paul provides a long list of people’s unrighteous behavior, including the specific sins of greed, murder, slander and disobedience to parents, as well as the general sins of wickedness, evil, depravity and malice. Each of these receives a passing mention as an example of “exchanging the truth of God for a lie,” as Paul defines idolatry. But Paul gives special attention to one sin: acts of same-sex intercourse. Why is this singled out and elaborated upon? Is homosexuality a more egregious sin, warranting special treatment? Or is the example of same-sex intercourse particularly suited to Paul’s argument, illustrating in stark terms how idolatry exchanges the natural for the unnatural? This latter explanation seems to make more sense. Homosexuality is given as a concrete example of an abstract concept. Idolatry is not simply the act of exchanging the Living God for golden statues, Paul argues, it is also the act of exchanging natural sexual experiences for unnatural ones.
The placement of this illustration within Paul’s argument is important as well. He is not charging acts of homosexuality as an instigator of God’s disapproval, nor the harbinger of God’s judgment. It is only one of the many manifestations of a life lived apart from God. In fact, the punishment for homosexual acts is, apparently from verse 27, the acts themselves. Shameful acts bring shame. God reserves his judgment, at least for the moment.
His reaction, not just to homosexual acts but to all idolatrous acts, is decidedly passive. Three times in this pericope, God is said to simply “give them over.” People have abandoned God, and in turn God has abandoned them.
It is important to note that Paul’s history lesson here is drawn with very broad strokes. His point is not to point a finger at those whom God has given up, but to show how the entire human race has become irreversibly depraved. No one is righteous. God has disowned humanity. If the book were to end with this sentiment in the middle of chapter 3, Romans would be depressingly fatalistic. But this is not the end of the story. Chapter 3 resumes with the good news that God has chosen to reconcile humanity under the lordship of Jesus. This is the Gospel message. It starts with humanity’s failure and inability to keep God’s laws, but it definitely and joyfully does not end there. Why is this important to the pericope of 1:24-32? Because, when looked at in isolation, it may seem that Paul is giving a command against homosexuality, but this is not the case. Paul is focused on theology, not ethics.
To be clear, Paul has nothing good to say about same-sex intercourse. This raises an important question for the modern reader: is Paul flat-out condemning homosexuality in all forms? To attempt an answer to this question, two considerations must be made regarding the wording of the text. First, the term ‘homosexuality’ is used in this paper to mean a sexual act between two members of the same sex. There is no reference within Romans to either of the original Greek words that have (only within the last 50 years or so) been rendered by many translations as “homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality.’ Rather, Paul explicitly spells out that these are men having sex with men, and women having sex with women.
The second consideration of Paul’s language is his use of the words “natural” and “unnatural”--physin and para physin in the original Greek. Many have interpreted these terms as a reference to biological compatibility. Male and female bodies, some argue, are ‘by nature’ complementary and allow for a ‘natural’ means of reproduction. Two individuals of the same sex are not compatible in this way. But the uses of physin and para physin in other texts do not lend themselves to such a universal, imperious meaning. This is not capital “N” nature.
On the contrary, physin can be translated as “ordinary,” “usual” or “expected.” In the same way, para physin may be rendered as “unordinary,” “unusual” or “unexpected”. Later in Romans 11:24, even God is said to act para physin, “contrary to nature” as the TNIV translates, by grafting the Gentiles into the olive tree of his fellowship. It is not that God is breaking some law of nature, but rather that he is acting in unexpected ways.
To summarize what we find here in the text, Paul is giving a general history of idolatry in order to set up his theological argument that all have sinned. He uses the example of men and women acting in atypical ways, motivated by lust. The importance of establishing these facts will become apparent as we explore the cultural context in which the church in Rome existed.
The Socio-Historical Setting of First-Century Palestine
In Green’s Practicing Theological Interpretation, he describes historical criticism as, in part, the “study of the historical situation within which the biblical materials were generated, including the sociocultural conventions that they take for granted”. Just as this discipline is crucial to the study of slavery, gender roles, divorce and other problematic issues in the Bible, it is also crucial to the study of homosexuality.
While the term ‘homosexuality’ may seem like a straightforward shorthand term to sum up what Paul is addressing, it should be distinguished from homosexuality as a sexual orientation. This is not a petty distinction. Sexual orientation, the idea that one may have a life-long attraction to the same, opposite or both genders, is a concept that has only been developed within the last century. It is a mistake to impose this modern understanding on the text. Rome did not have an LGBT community. The assumption in Paul’s day seems to have been that everyone was innately straight--that is, attracted to the opposite sex. For Paul to describe homosexuality as the pursuit of “sinful lusts” seems to be an apt description then, if he is talking about straight men and straight women acting on their perverse curiosities.
External sources seem to support this idea. In her book, The New Testament and Homosexuality, Scroggs writes that during the time of Paul’s writing, “the model for male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world was pedarastic”. Older married Greek men would spend much of their day in bathhouses. It was a place for social interaction with one another and erotic encounters with young male lovers. These boys, most of whom were adolescents, were valued for their youthful, often feminine, appearance. These relationships were somewhat contractual, with the young men receiving gifts and financial support in exchange for sexual favors.
This historical account seems to confirm this paper’s assertions that in Paul’s day, those who engaged in homosexual acts were 1) maintaining heterosexual marriages and otherwise considered by society to be ‘straight,’ and 2) motivated by lust and meriting condemnation. This form of homosexuality is a far cry from the type of monogamous, long-term same-sex relationships that many people today are championing. There is no indication that Paul is speaking to the practice of pederasty here in Romans, especially because he speaks of lesbianism as well, but the practice of pederasty speaks to the heteronormative assumptions of the culture and the understanding of homosexuality as a form of extramarital promiscuity.
So, to call back to Paul’s reference in the text to men and women acting in atypical ways, he is most likely describing homosexual acts that are committed by heterosexually-oriented individuals in a fit of lust. Because modern ideas of sexual orientation cannot be imposed upon Paul’s statements, it is fair to say that Paul does not have any modern idea of the LGBT community in mind.
Given the disparity between the homosexuality of Paul’s day and that in our own, can one conclude from this that Scripture has nothing to say to homosexually-oriented people today? By its silence on the idea of long-term, committed same-sex relationships, can one conclude that the Bible condones them? Do these homosexual acts Paul talks about stand in for all homosexual acts, even by LGBT folks? These are difficult questions, but they are the right ones to ask. Romans 1:24-32 does not offer any clear answers, but it does seem to accommodate a diversity of opinions.
The Cultural Setting of Twenty-First Century America
With few exceptions, the Church today does not make such accommodations for differing beliefs and those who hold them. Quite the opposite, the Church has persecuted the LGBT community, greatly contributing to the stigma it still bears within our culture. To borrow Tamez’ terms, the Church, rather than standing in solidarity with the oppressed, have become in this case the oppressors.
Tamez speaks to the danger of any biblical hermeneutic that does not make room for any perspective outside of one’s own. This danger is especially evident with those controversial texts, like Romans 1:24-32, relating to homosexuality.
One of the criticisms frequently cited against a pro-gay interpretation of Romans 1:24-32, to which my analysis is sympathetic, is that it ignores a natural or simple reading of the text. When given the choice between two or more possible interpretations of a text, the argument goes, the simplest one should be preferred.
It is simple for most readers to agree with Paul, that it is unnatural for men to have sex with other men, and women with other women. Of course such activities would be perverse, we think. But most of us are heterosexual, after all. This text does not read so simply for folks who are born homosexually-oriented, for whom relations with the opposite sex was never natural in the first place. Paul assumes a shared perspective and experience that only a certain demographic of believers today can relate to.
To once again borrow Tamez’ terms and extrapolate on her arguments, straight Christians have the propensity toward oppression when we fail to account for the experience and perspectives of others in our hermeneutical conclusions. The LGBT community is certainly not the first group to fall victim to this exclusion. The power to interpret Scripture has traditionally been reserved by white, straight males (like myself), who, at various points throughout history have used Scripture to marginalize women and minorities, in addition to LGBT folks. The class system in Tamez’ native Costa Rica, which informs her interpretation of the poor and rich in scripture, finds an equivalent here among the homeless youth of America (40% of whom identify as LGBT), and the families and churches that have disowned them.
The good news, of course, is that God’s heart is for the orphaned and the widow, tax-collectors and lepers, those oppressed and rejected by society. I think Tamez’ statement, that “God identifies himself with the poor to such an extent that their rights become the rights of God himself,” may be applied to this oppressed demographic as well.
We don’t need to fully accept the Pro-Gay interpretation of Romans 1:24-32, briefly summarized in this study, in order to appreciate it. The perception that the LGBT community is, at best, ignorant of God’s Word or, at worst, actively despising God in their “lust for one another” is just wrong. When we engage in civil discourse, we do a service to the LGBT community by recognizing their worth, to ourselves by caring for the oppressed, and, ultimately, to Christ, whose name we bear and whose reputation we have profaned by associating it with hate.
Durso, L.E., & Gates, G.J. (2012). Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund.
Green, Joel B. Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and
Formation (Baker Academic, 2011)
Helminiak, Daniel. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality (New Mexico: Alamo Square Press)
Kinnaman, David & Gabe Lyons. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983)
Tamez, Elsa. The Bible of the Oppressed. Wipf & Stock, 2006.