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Does Romans 1 Condemn Homosexuality?8 min read

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Many gay apologists have attempted to interpret scripture in a way that views homosexuality as normative, rather than sinful.  While some of their arguments have merit (like the primary sin of Sodom being a lack of hospitality), ultimately, they fail to justify homosexuality.  In fact in his booklet Same-Sex Partnerships? John Stott refutes this argument well (synopsis of it here).  In the synopsis, you can see Stott’s response to each of the common pro-gay interpretations of scripture, and why he feels that they are not correct.  He closes with a biblical call (vs. the twin extremes of an unbiblical, truthless, and humanistic call or a loveless fundamentalist call) to Christian faith, hope, and love.  Again, I think it can be summed up in Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you, go and sin no more.”

The main new testament proof text regarding homosexuality, however, is Romans 1:18-31.  Rather than give my opinion on it, I have transcribed a section of John Stott’s Romans: God’s Good News for the World.  Stott is one of the most prolific and respected Christian theologians of our time.  Enjoy.

A. Verses 21-24

The opening statement that they knew God cannot be taken absolutely, since everywhere Paul writes that people outside Christ do not know God. It refers rather to the limited knowledge of God’s power and glory which is available to everyone through general revelation (19-20).

Instead of their knowledge of God leading to the worship of God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. Rather their thinking became futile and theeir foolish hearts were darkened (21), and (despite their claim to wisdom) they became fools (22).Their futility, darkness and folly were seen in their idolatry, and in the absurd ‘exchange’ which their idolatry involved: they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal men and birds and animals and reptiles (23).

What Paul saw plainly, C.H. Dodd wites, was that Greek philosophy ‘easily came to terms with the grossest forms of superstition and immorality. And so it did, just as it is a grave count against the lofty philosophy of Hinduism that it utters no effective protest against the most degrading practices of popular religion in India today.’ But the cultural idolatry of the West is no better. To exchange the worship of the living God for the modern obsession with wealth, fame and power is equally foolish and equally blameworthy.

God’s judgment on the people’s idolatry was to give them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity. The history of the world confirms that idolatry tends to immorality. A false image of God leads to a false understanding of sex. Paul does not tell us what kind of immorality he has in mind except that it involved the degrading of their bodies with one another (24). He is right. Illicit sex degrades people’s humanness; sex in marriage, as God intended, ennobles it.

B. Verses 25-27

Here another ‘exchange’ is mentioned, not exchanging of the glory of God for images (23), but the exchanging of the truth of God for a lie, indeed ‘the’ lie, the ultimate lie. For this is what the falsehood of idolatry is, since it involves transferring our worship to created things from the Creator, whom Paul in a spontaneous doxology declares worthy of eternal adoration: who is forever praised (25).

This time God gave them over to shameful lusts, which Paul specifies as lesbian practices (26) and male homosexual relationships (27). In both cases he describes the people concerned as guilty of the third ‘exchange’: the women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones (26), while the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed which lust for one another (27a). Twice he uses the adjective physikos (‘natural’) and once the expression para physin (‘against nature’ or ‘unnatural’). Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (27b). Paul does not specify what this penalty is; only that it is received ‘in themselves’.

Vs 26-27 are a crucial text in the contemporary debate about homosexuality. The traditional interpretation, that they describe and condemn all homosexual behavior, is being challenged by the gay lobby. Three arguments are advanced.

First, it is claimed that the passage is irrelevant, on the ground that its purpose is neither to teach sexual ethics, nor to expose vice, but rather to portray the outworking of God’s wrath. This is true. But if a certain sexual conduct is to be seen as the consequence of God’s wrath, it must be displeasing to him.

Secondly, ‘the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty’ since ‘there was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco Roman world’, and that he is opposing it because of the humiliation and exploitation experienced by the youths involved. All one can say in response to this suggestion is that the text itself contains no hint of it.

Finally, there’s the question of what Paul meant by ‘nature’. Some homosexual people are urging that their relationships cannot be described as ‘unnatural’, since they are perfectly natural to them. John Boswell has written, for example, that ‘the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual people’. Hence Paul’s statement that they ‘abandoned’ natural relations, and ‘exchanged’ them for unnatural (26-27). Richard Hayes has written a thorough exegetical rebuttal of this interpretation of Romans 1, however. He provides ample contemporary evidence that the opposition of ‘natural’ (kata physin) and ‘unnatural’ (para physin) was ‘very frequently used … as a way of distinguishing between heterosexual and homosexual behavior’. Besides, differentiating between sexual orientation and sexual practice is a modern concept; ‘To suggest that all intends to condemn homosexual acts only when they’re committed by persons were constitutionally heterosexual is to introduce a distinction entirely foreign to Paul’s thought-world’, in fact a complete anachronism.

So then, we have no liberty to interpret the noun ‘nature’ as meaning ‘my’ nature, or the adjective ‘natural’ as meaning ‘what seems natural to me’. On the contrary, physis (“natural”) means God’s created order. To act ‘against nature’ is to violate the order which God has established, whereas to act ‘according to nature’ is to behave ‘in accordance with the intention of the creator’. Moreover, the intention of the creator is his original intention. What this was, Genesis tells us and Jesus confirmed: “At the beginning of the Creator ‘made them male and female,’  and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’So they are no longer two, but one.”

Then Jesus added his personal endorsement and the deduction: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate.’ In other words, God created humankind male and female; that instituted marriage as a heterosexual union; and to what God has thus united, we have no liberty to separate. This threefold action of God established that the only context in which he intends for the one flesh experience is heterosexual monogamy, and that a homosexual partnership (however loving and committed to it claims to be) is ‘against nature’ and can never be regarded as a legitimate alternative to marriage.