Romans 1 and Homosexuality


In Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul is building toward the conclusion he reaches in chapter 3, variously captured in 3:9, 20, and 23. Paul concludes that all human beings are "under sin" whether they would be Jew or Gentile.


In building toward this conclusion, Paul begins with some general comments in Romans 1 with which his audience would readily agree. These arguments seem particularly targeted at a person who might consider him or herself a "Jew" and "boast in God" (2:17). "You know the will of God and approve of things that are excellent revealed from the Law and have become convinced that you are leader of the blind, a light of those in darkness..." Whether Paul has in mind a person who is ethnically Jewish or simply a conservative Gentile Christian is not important for our purposes (the answer is not as clear as one might think). But the person Paul has in mind is someone who thinks they might boast about their knowledge of the law.


To set up such a person, to catch him or her in hypocrisy, Paul presents a number of sins in Romans 1:18-32 that such a person might readily rail against. While Paul never mentions Gentiles explicitly in these verses, he invokes the two most stereotypical Gentile sins: idolatry (1:23) and sexual immorality, homosexual sex in particular. This is a sting operation--not that Paul doesn't believe these things are sinful--it is just they are not the point that he is really working toward. His real purpose is to show that anyone who might boast in their own righteousness stands just as condemned as anyone else, just as subject to the wrath of God as anyone mentioned in Romans 1.


These facts lead us to our first observation. Before a person comes to Christ, all sins have the same effect and are thus, for all intents and purposes, the same. Some of you will know that I do not believe that all sins are of the same consequence after we come to Christ. But before we are justified by faith, all sins may as well be equal: they all imply that we lack the glory God intended for us (3:23). Similarly, we are all just as easily and freely justified by the blood of Christ (3:24). For all intents and purposes, homosexual sex is no different from any other sin when it comes to the time before we have faith in Christ. When we come to Christ, this sin is forgiven just as much as any lie we might have told or any stealing we might have done or any hateful word we might have said.


Romans 1:18-32 itself presents a process of abandonment by God with a resultant deterioration into darkness and shame. We might capture the train of thought as follows:


First, the wrath of God is against all human ungodliness (1:18). Paul plays out this general statement in the rest of the chapter.


The starting point for such ungodliness among most humans is as follows. While the invisible things of God should be clear to everyone (his eternal power and divinity), humanity has not glorified God or given Him thanks accordingly. They have exchanged the truth of God for a lie (1:23). They worshiped idols and images rather than the true God. This comment alone makes it clear that Paul primarily has Gentiles rather than Jews in view in Romans 1.


Three "He delivered" sections follow. Paul implies that in response to the Gentile's failure to acknowledge God as God, in response to human idolatry, God lets a process of deterioration take place. God abandons the pagan world to several consequences:


1. Therefore, God delivered them to the desires of their hearts. This involves dishonoring their bodies among themselves (1:24) and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (1:25). It is possible that Paul then plays out these two comments in the rest of the chapter. In other words, 1:24-25 seem a kind of general statement whose particulars appear in the rest of the chapter.


2. So 1:26-27 play out the first comment: Gentiles dishonored their bodies among themselves. 1:26 says God delivered them to dishonorable passions. Paul then enumerates female and male homosexual sex. 1:26 speaks of women exchanging the natural use for that beside nature (para physin). 1:27 then speaks of males leaving the natural use of the female and burning toward one another, "males among males doing the shameful."


3. 1:28-32 then play out the second comment on "exchanging the truth of God for a lie" from 1:25. God delivered them (1:28) to a worthless mind. What follows is a list of vices that Paul considers "worthy of death" (1:32).


OK, now that we have presented the basic thrust of this chapter, what might it contribute to the matter of Christianity and homosexuality?


First of all, it seems clear that Paul believes homosexual sex of both the male and female kind to be shameful, dishonorable, and unnatural. Paul is not speaking of same-sex rape or pederasty or violence. He is speaking of a man doing with a man what a man "naturally" does with a woman. Paul's language here evokes images of Leviticus 18 and 20. We might also mention that this is the only reference in the Bible to female homosexual sex.


Some have argued at this point that the connection between idolatry and homosexual acts points to male temple prostitution as what Paul has in mind. Their argument is thus that Paul is only condemning homosexual sex associated with a pagan temple here and not something like a monogamous homosexual relationship. This argument seems highly unlikely to me. For one, I'm not sure how common male-male temple prostitution was in the ancient world, in fact if it even existed at this time. I have serious doubts about how prevalent such a practice was. I could be wrong, but I don't think homosexual sex was considered honorable in most of the Roman world even by pagans. A former student of mind reminded me of a reference to the emperor Nero's preference for “young men” at his court (Tacitus) and how the text looked down on him for it.  Ancient Greece may have been the exception a few centuries previous under certain circumstances (i.e., in Plato's day), but I'm not sure how prevalent this acceptance was even in Paul's day in Greece. I could be wrong, but I don't think Romans 1 gives us nearly the kind of evidence we would need to conclude Paul was thinking of homosexual sex at a temple.


Second, Paul considers such desires the consequence of the Gentiles' failure to acknowledge God properly. Because the Gentiles do not acknowledged God as God, God has abandoned them to these desires. It is probably significant to note a slight strangeness to this train of thought, for Paul makes it sound like the entire pagan world, as a consequence of their idolatry, ends up engaged in homosexual sex. The reason this is significant to note is because it reveals that Paul is not thinking of the small segment of the human population that we today would classify as homosexual. His argument is about the whole world, and the failure of the whole pagan world to acknowledge God as God has lead, for one thing, to sexual shame.


One difficult interpretive issue comes from Paul's comment that such people were working the shameful "and receiving the punishment among themselves that was necessary because of their error" (1:27). What punishment did Paul have in mind?


Many turn at this point to something like AIDS or venereal diseases as the punishment "in themselves." But no mention is made of physical consequences. Such a line of thought fits suspiciously with the way we in a medically, scientifically oriented culture think--it seems anachronistic. Given Paul's honor-shame world, I think the most likely answer is that the action itself is so shameful that it is its own punishment. In other words, might we dynamically translate the statement something like the following: "men with men working the shameful and thus receiving among themselves the punishment of disgrace necessary given their error." I am not 100% certain of this interpretation, but it seems the one most likely given the way Paul's world thought.


Third, it is not clear at all that Paul considers homosexual sin here worse than the viceful individuals he mentions later in the chapter. Indeed, it is those with vices in 1:29-31 that Paul speaks of as worthy of death--people like slanderers. There is nothing in the chapter to lead us to believe that Paul meant to emphasize the homosexual sinners of 1:26-27 as being worse than the others in the chapter. Indeed, if Paul were giving a downward spiral--and I don't necessarily think he is--then the sinners at the end of the chapter would be worse than those in the middle.


To summarize: Paul considers homosexual sex of all kinds not only as sinful, shameful, and unnatural, but he sees it as a consequence of a failure to acknowledge God as God. However, Paul is not writing about a specific group of people like homosexuals--a modern category--he is making a universal argument about Gentiles as a whole and homosexual sex as the kind of thing that results among pagans who do not believe in God. Sexual sins of this sort are common to all non-believers in general, not just a particular group with a certain orientation, because Gentiles are pagan and idolatrous. Finally, Paul gives us no indication that he considered homosexual sex as more sinful or a greater object of God's wrath than the other sinners at the end of the chapter.


I might add here that I don't think Paul thought in terms of a "homosexual" if by that term you refer to a person with a certain "orientation," someone "attracted to" the same sex.  This category seems to have arisen in the 1800's when doctors first "diagnosed" a person as having "homosexuality" as a kind of psychological disposition.  For Paul, a homosexual was someone who was known for having sex with someone of the same gender.  The word he uses in 1 Corinthians 6:9 "arsenokoites" implies sharing a bed with a man rather than an orientation.