Homosexuality and Romans 1

Over the past few weeks I have been taking occasional soundings into questions surrounding homosexuality in the ancient world.

Just to clarify what has not been clear to some: it is obvious to me that Paul did not approve of (some sort of) same-sex coupling. The question I have been probing is what did he not approve of, and why?

I regularly hear that the things Paul stood against were pederasty and temple prostitution. In a couple of previous posts (here and here) I questioned whether these forms of same-sex relations existed, and/or might have otherwise been the object of Paul’s scorn.

Last week I took up a third possible target for Paul’s same-sex polemic: slave sex. This was a ubiquitous reality in Rome. And, it was built on a system of social hierarchy that was deeply embedded in not only “pagan” Greco-Roman culture, but also early Judaism and nascent Christianity.

Jewish and Hellenistic

A couple of people have pushed back against the idea that we look to Greco-Roman context to understand what Paul might have been communicating. I get it. There is a theological bent to all of Paul’s thinking that has to be given some level of primacy. Paul as a Jewish theologian, engaging and working from the story of Scripture, needs to be a primary reference point.

To this I say yes. And no.

Today I want to go over the yes. We’ll get there in just a second.

In a later post I’ll explore the no. Here’s what I mean by no: First, by the first century there is no such thing as a non-Hellenized Judaism. There were approximately 160 years of Hellenization in play before the first Pharisees arrived on the scene. To be anyone in the first century Mediterranean is to be someone whose life has been Hellenized, and possibly someone whose life has been Romanized.

Second, there are a couple of places where, in discussing what might be same-sex issues, Paul shows that he is working with Greco-Roman ideas as much as Jewish theological ones.

The Jewish Story

There is only one place in the New Testament where the question of same-sex relations is mapped onto any sort of theological discussion. That is Romans 1.

I remain convinced of what I developed at some length in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?; namely, that Paul tells an anti-creation narrative in Rom 1 that reaches its nadir in same-sex intercourse. (By the way: you really should read the book. It’s basically like a skeletal New Testament theology that digs into important ethical issues in the second half.)

Romans 1:18ff. starts with a description of God as creator, and God’s ability to be known through the creation. The specific echoes of Gen 1 come into play when Paul describes the idolatry to which people turned: humans, birds, beasts, swarming things.

This is not just a generalized depiction of the turn from creator to creation, it is specifically tied to the creation story of Gen 1.

In different ways, the creation stories of Gen 1 and Gen 2 both depict the culmination of creation as the making of male-female humans. In Gen 2, the purpose appears to be rather overtly sexual.

Thus, the giving up of “natural” sex for unnatural, or men burning in their desires for one another is a final piece of a decline of civilization narrative (a common ancient trope) built on a Jewish framework.

A couple of things need to be said at this point.

First, this is a stereotyped depiction of civilization gone bad. It does not mean that Paul imagines men who first know God then deciding to worship idols and then one day waking up and realizing they want to have sex with men.

Second, the decline itself is depicted as an act of God: God gave them over. The various steps in the descent are each their own little punishment, the revelation of the wrath of God.

Third, the vice list that comes after is the final “handing over.” So, even though I would maintain that the same-sex remarks in 1:27 are the nadir of the anti-creation narrative itself, that is not the worst that it gets. The true low point is found in the manifold vices that Paul lists in vv. 28-32.

It is because Paul is working with an idea of how sex fits into the natural world and created order that he can talk about various sexual activities being unnatural in this context.

Ok, But What Does It Mean?

Having said all of that, there are still a couple of issues that may seem obvious to us that we’ll have to work out. I’ll come back to them in a subsequent post.

First, do we know, yet, what Paul is opposing? In v. 26 he says women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural. Do we know what this means? Many, perhaps most, modern readers think this is talking about lesbian sexual intercourse. This does not seem to be how most ancient readers understood it.

Second, are we sure we know why Paul thinks these things are wrong? Paul says certain kinds of sex are “against nature.” But if we look at 1 Cor 11 Paul talks about “nature” teaching us that certain hair styles are only for men, others for women. Might it be that in issues of gender (which are inseparable from issues of sexuality) Paul uses the word “nature” for what we might call “culture”?

Third, what does Paul mean when he says, “receiving in themselves the due penalty of their error”? What does this tell us about what Paul is opposing and why he is opposing it?

Paul is mapping his concerns about sexual contact onto a Jewish map of creation and anti-creation, a stereotyped depiction of how the good world has gone to hell in a hand basket. (He is probably building specifically on another Jewish text, one called Wisdom of Solomon.)

I think that what we will see as we keep digging is that his Jewish background is in a deeply entangled relationship with his Greco-Roman culture.

[Post Script: the best articulation of this perspective probably remains that of Richard Hays in Moral Vision of the New Testament.]

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12 thoughts on “Homosexuality and Romans 1

  1. I’m really appreciating this series. It’s so important for everyone to see and acknowledge that we simply aren’t working from the same foundational assumptions as Paul. Does anyone actually think it’s credible that homosexuals are actually heterosexuals who worshipped a statue? Or even the more generalized idea that homosexuality in society is a symptom of idolatry in that society? Wouldn’t people who believed this expect homosexuality to be more prevalent in polytheistic cultures?

    1. Yes, it could be, Luke. I think it’s important that we not assume what he meant, or what we should do with what he meant. I note that in both cases he says such a thing after making an argument from the biblical text about first creation. So I do think there are some important, strong parallels.

  2. My question is whether there is a more basic hermeneutical problem. Let’s assume that Paul did “not approve of same-sex coupling” as you put it. Let’s assume that this includes any same sex coupling as we understand it today. But what if Paul is using an example from his understanding of the world to prove a more basic point being made in Romans 1? That is, Paul is not, it seems to me, discussing homosexuality per se, but making a more basic point regarding idol worship. Worship of creator puts one in right relationship with the creation. Thus, from our point of view, Paul may have used an example that may no longer be valid given our understanding, but that does not disturb his overall point. (A “bad” example from our point of view.)

    1. That is another way to approach the text, Ken. I’ve heard that line of argument suggested from a couple of different angles. Another has been the thought that heterosexual sex is “natural” for everyone, and this is talking about people choosing to cultivate a different desire, or act against what is natural for them. Since we know that most folks who are same-sex attracted don’t, in fact, make such choices, it is written off as a “bad example,” as you put it.

      In general, I’d say that Paul is not just talking about idol worship, but about the world as a whole gone to crap because people aren’t worshipping God. That is to say, the the reality of a good world gone wrong is a key component of the argument, not ancillary to it. I don’t know if that’s disagreeing with your overall framework or nuancing it.

      1. Nuancing certainly. I was not really trying to do an exegesis but only to notice the relationship of the same-sex discussion to the overall argument. Same-sex discussion is supportive of the overall argument. Another way to look at it is perhaps a twist on John Boswell’s thesis: “natural” may be understood differently as we understand human sexuality more fully (appreciate more fully? understand humanity more fully?)

    2. Yep. It seems a matter of basic comprehension to follow one’s way back up the daisy-chain of “therefore”s at the start of several verses, in which case the passage starts around v18 (maybe even v16) and definitely majors on the theme of idolatry.

      Me, I find the chronology ambiguous. “Therefore God gave them over…” etc. Having suddenly become specific, is Paul talking about one specific historical event? If so, what who when? Or about a regular habit of ancient Israelites to lose the plot occasionally? Or a present distributed “whenever you see ungodly/unrighteous folks, this is what they’re doing wrong”? Or even about something yet to come, with an eschatological leaning?

  3. On 1 Cor 11:14 and nature, I think it makes no sense as it is commonly translated. Neither nature nor Greek culture nor Jewish culture says that long hair on a man is shameful. Greek philosophers had long hair with no shame. Jewish nazirites had long hair with no shame. If one does not cut one’s hair, it gets long until it falls out, that is the natural process involved and this is true for both genders.

    I think the translators made their best guess and failed. In any case I do not think it is a verse to use to try to figure out what nature means.

  4. “There is only one place in the New Testament where the question of same-sex relations is mapped onto any sort of theological discussion. That is Romans 1.” doesn’t seem to me to do justice to the argument in I Cor. 5-6, with its claim that Christ’s ownership of my body is the governing principle in sex-ethics.

    You’ll forgive me if I quote another hunk of my own writing, from my 1997 paper revised and updated in :–

    Because the two explicit New Testament texts, Rom. 1:26-27 and I Cor. 6:9-11, are Pauline, the argument is sometimes made that we have no Dominical teaching on the subject and that Jesus will have at least tolerated the conduct. I shall get to this in connection with the I Corinthians list. Of the Romans 1 text it should be said that we must be careful to read it in the context of Paul’s mighty argument, which we may not short-circuit or trivialise. Some such bathetic short-circuiting is involved in any reading which makes God “abandon” women and men to nothing more striking than behaviour which is slightly outré by societal standards. His vocabulary for “females” and “males” is of the kind which highlights biological differentiation and procreational compatibility, and echoes the Greek rendering of the parallel Hebrew pair of terms at Gen. 1:27. He is speaking of the biologically bizarre as angering to the Creator of sexual difference. At the same time homosexual passion and action (women are mentioned as subject to them only here) are plainly not being singled out by Paul. His indictment of sin is very comprehensive. It seems to me that he is taking a long and cosmic view, and harking right back to the Fall. He says in effect “God-shaped gap leads to substitute worship leads to degrading idols leads to abandonment by God leads to degraded living (with examples of the kind which especially appalled the more outwardly moral Jew) and a denial of what one knows of God and ethics”. In the context of Creation, Fall and Redemption it is unsurprising that he should instance one manifestation of our corruption that touches the core of our being, namely that estrangement from the other sex which is more than hinted at in Gen. 3. However, he is also speaking of a homosexual condition leading to action. Therefore to suggest that because New Testament Greek has no noun for “homosexuality” per se the concept is missing is either ingenuous or disingenuous. Like Plato, Paul speaks in terms of relations which are not in accord with φύσις. With him he must mean that the whole phenomenon is unbiological; unlike him, he sees the vertical dimension of φύσις-as-Creation.

    It is never fruitful to interrogate Scripture in the wrong terms. Any attempt to make a connection between τὴv ἀτιμισθίαv ἣv ἔδει τὰς πλάvης αὐτῶv ἐv αὐτoῖς ἀπoλαμβάvovτες at the end of verse 27 and current diseases founders on the fact that Paul is not prophesying, but speaking in the Aorist tense of men’s past finished actions. This Greek may mean a pervasive self-consciousness and defensiveness in the affected personality; or may quite as probably refer to the eventual historical judgement on Sodom. It is by no means clear that Rom. 1, or any other part of Scripture, speaks to our questions about the aetiology of the homosexual condition. Some would stress the use of μετήλλαξαv τὴv φυσικὴv χρῆσιv and suggest that it is always chosen. Others would stress παρέδωκεv αὐτoὺς ὁ θεός and argue for an origin in the Fall with its resultant idolatry. Perhaps such thinking must bow before the mystery of iniquity: there is no explanation, only a solution for all of us who have sin in our bloodstream. My personal conviction is that in Paul’s mind the choice and “exchange” are Adamic, whatever particular vices we may add through our own personal mini-Fall: God have mercy on us, for we are all perverts one way or another. As St. Paul is saying, everybody knows, and nobody does. All of us, if we think at all, are haunted by the sense that “in the beginning it was not so”.

  5. The I Cor. 11 passage is very mysterious as we all know; but I have been certain for a long time that a main concern is visible sexual differentiation, as opposed to obliteration, and in that context that the ‘acted parable’ aspect of marriage should not be obscured in public worship. That may be how the angels come into it, as needing salvation explained to them …

  6. Richard Hays is wonderfully clear on the meaning of Romans 1:

    “If Romans 1— the key text— is to inform normative judgments about homosexuality, it must function as a diagnostic tool, laying bare the truth about humankind’s dishonorable “exchange” of the natural for the unnatural. According to Paul, homosexual relations, however they may be interpreted (or rationalized: see Rom. 1: 32) by fallen and confused creatures, represent a tragic distortion of the created order. If we accept the authority of the New Testament on this subject, we will be taught to perceive homosexuality accordingly.” (Moral Vision, Kindle Locations 11024-11027)

  7. Hey Daniel,
    I’ve really appreciated the whole series and have found it thought provoking and informative. One of the larger questions that I have about Romans 1 and the moral logic of the passage is the issue of lust/passion. Obviously in this post your dealing with issues of nature/natural but I was curious how you think the issue of lust/passion fits into the picture. Some people have suggested that Paul sees homosexual behavior as an excess of lust/passion and I was wondering to what degree you see that in the text and how that should affect how we understand and apply this passage

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