On the subject of homosexuality few authors are as controversial as the apostle Paul. At the heart of the controversy is particularly Paul’s letter to the Romans. For good reason too, Paul’s letter to Romans is the most explicit statement regarding same-sex intercourse. Paul rejects same-sex intercourse in no uncertain terms.
The book of Romans contains a direct statement against homosexuality. In fact Romans 1:24-27 is hard to overturn; in trying to develop a theology of sex, then, we must read carefully what Romans has to say about homosexuality. The passage states:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
It’s clear, and all concede, that the passage clearly articulates same-sex intercourse. But people do still challenge the assertion that Paul is speaking directly to the matter of homosexuality as we understand it today. There are several alternative interpretations offered, but none are convincing.
John Boswell, among others, argues that the issue of exchanging “natural relations” has to do with what is natural to the individual. The issue, then, is not homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather was a scenario where heterosexuals were exchanging their natural inclination for same-sex intercourse. Boswell writes:
The persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The whole point of Romans 1, in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were on. (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 109)
The burden of proof, however, is on Boswell and the like. Nothing in the texts indicates that there is a distinction in Paul’s mind between true gays and lesbians and false ones. Understanding what Paul means by “nature” will help clarify this.
The phrase “natural relations” in the Greek is found only here and in 2 Peter. It can literally be translated as “the natural use of.” Paul has in mind here the very “material shape of the created order” (Gagnon, 256). The phrase “contrary to nature,” applied to same-sex intercourse, is used not only by Paul but by other Jewish authors of the time and has a clear meaning. It refers to the anatomical and procreative incompatibility that exists between people of the same-sex. This becomes even more clear when we consider the context of the passage.
Paul writes in chapter 1 about the “suppression of the truth” by idolaters. He states that the truth about God should be known because it is clearly perceived and seen in the created world. He says it is “plainly visible” and “obvious.” The implication being that one could look at what God has made, the physical world, and know something of the truth. In the flow of the passage, then, readers should expect that 1:26-27 would communicate the same idea. Based on the physical appearance of the created body we ought to know something about the truth of male and female sexual compatibility. That same-sex intercourse is viewed by Paul as the “dishonoring of their bodies” also gives us reason to conclude that natural physiology is in view here. Same-sex intercourse, then, in Paul’s purview is the “unnatural use” of the body and a suppression of the obvious truth supplied by our anatomical compatibility.
The second argument applies a variation to the first general concept. The argument here is that Paul’s condemnation applies only to those engaged in idolatry, not to Christians. After all idolatry certainly plays a major role in the text, couldn’t this passage simply be limiting the behavioral practices of those who reject God? This doesn’t strike me as a very legitimate argument. After all nothing else in the list of sins found in Romans 1 would be permissible for those who worship the one true God. Covetousness, murder, strife, envy, slander, etc. are all listed in verses 29 and 30, and surely pro-Gay advocates would not suggest that these are only unacceptable if you are an idolator.
The final interpretation strikes me as less academic too. It states that Paul’s condemnation is against lust and promiscuity, not against loving monogamous homosexuality. Paul does describe the parties involved as being “consumed with passion”. But, as Joe Dallas has written, “The condemnation here is of the thing itself, not the way it’s practiced” (The Gay Gospel?, 207). Paul makes no qualifiers. It speaks generally and broadly about same-sex acts. It should be noted that no scholars that I’ve read, pro-Gay advocate or strictly conservative, interact with this view in any great detail. I am inclined to think that it is not frequently discussed in academic circles but has a popular life.
It’s important at this point to consider the overall intent of Romans 1:18-3:20. Paul is making a case for the universality of sin. He is setting his Jewish brothers up to realize that they, like the Gentiles, are sinners in need of God’s saving grace. We should then, likewise, be careful not to turn Romans 1 into some condemnation of homosexuality exclusively. The point of Paul’s whole letter is that we are all sinners, and Christ can redeem and renew us all. We ought to hold that before our eyes often. I am a sinner too, just because my sins are different doesn’t give me any ground to stand on. And yet Christ is offered to all of us. Christ is savior of both heterosexuals and of all in the GLBT community. Above all else that ought to be our emphasis in discussing Romans.