For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.(Romans 1:26-27)
Romans 1:26-27 is perhaps the most challenging biblical text for Christians who seek to argue for a more affirming understanding of same-sex sexual relationships. In the next few posts I will address this text.
First, a reminder: Every reader of scripture reads with a perspective that includes rules, conscious or unconscious, which determine how they interpret what they read. I want to remind readers of my basic approach to interpreting scripture found here: Some Thoughts on Interpreting Scripture, here: Back to the Bible, and here: The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture.
Second, before looking at the specific verses that mention the phenomenon of same-sex sexual behavior, it is important to look at the larger context. Most scholars agree that Paul’s purpose in Romans 1-3 is to argue that the need of the salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ is radical and universal (actually, he plays this argument out all the way through chapter 7).
In the first 17 verses of Romans 1, the Apostle celebrates the gospel which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (vs.16). This is important because the church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Greeks). It appears there was some rivalry and suspicion between these two groups. Perhaps Jewish believers claimed superiority because they were of the chosen people who had anticipated the coming of the Messiah. Gentile believers could claim superiority based what Jews themselves accepted as a mixed history of reception and rejection of the prophets – “We members of the New Covenant are a fresh start and won’t be like them.” Paul intends to undercut any notions of superiority on the part of either group.
As part of that argument, Paul sets up a rhetorical trap which he springs in 2:1. In vss. 18-32, he uses standard Jewish critique of Gentile idolatry.
The common Jewish understanding was that once people – Gentiles – exchanged the worship of God for the things God created, they lost the ability to see things clearly and lost all control morally (see Wisdom 12:23-13:10 and 14:9-31). The sexual licentiousness Jews attributed to Gentiles was one part of this and Paul points to same-sex sexual encounters as he understood them as a particularly egregious example. But, Paul understands “every kind of wickedness” to result from Gentile idolatry.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.(Romans 1:28-31)
Thus, Gentiles have no cause to boast.
You can imagine the Roman Jewish Christians giving a hearty “Amen” to this description of Gentile foolishness and immorality. But then Paul springs his trap in Romans 2:1-3
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You [Jewish Christians] say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
Jewish Christians who were smugly judging the Gentile Christian brothers and sisters brought up short. They would recognize some of their own behavior in the culminating list of kinds of wickedness. From there, Paul lays out the argument that Jews are as much in need of the salvation Jesus brings as are Gentiles. None can boast. None can judge.
This is an important warning for all of us to take to heart in general. But, it is no less true when it comes to debates regarding homosexuality in particular. As New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes has written (in arguing for a more traditional understanding of homosexuality),
Paul’s warning should transform the terms of our contemporary debate about homosexuality: no one has a secure platform to stand upon to pronounce condemnation upon others. Anyone who presumes to have such a vantage point is living in a dangerous fantasy, oblivious to the gospel that levels us all.
Still that does not absolve us from trying to make faithful sense of what Paul is up to in Romans 1:26-27. We’ll look at that more closely in the next post. Much depends on what Paul (and his contemporaries) understood to be natural and unnatural.
Looking at Romans 1: