We now come to the most important passage in our study of homosexuality. It’s the only passage that describes homosexual activity 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.