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So, eventually we get to Romans 1. When looking at the Biblical verses that speak against homosexual practice, this is the most important. I am going to take four blog posts to deal with this passage, because it is so significant for the issue of whether God affirms same gender marriage.
We’ve seen already that the other Biblical verses that have traditionally been used to show that God is against same gender marriage and sexual activity are actually talking about specific abusive and cultic sexual practices. If you’re just joining the conversation now, you might want to go back and catch up on the parts of the series you’ve missed. Romans 1 is important because it appears to do more than this – it seems to say that homosexuality is “against nature”, and therefore a direct affront to God. It also implies that homosexual desires are actually a curse from God and a sign of the moral degradation of society. This is what many Christians believe – and Romans 1 is where they go for Biblical proof.
If we’re going to change the church’s traditional view on homosexuality, we’re going to have to show that Romans 1 does not actually say what most Christians have believed it says for the past 2,000 years. But that’s precisely what I am going to do.
I’m going to do this in a few different ways.
In this post, I want to start by actually looking at the plain reading of the text, but through the eyes of a gay person committed to living to a godly life. I want you to see – without any detailed analysis of the text – that actually the plain reading of the text is not what you think it is. It talks of people consumed by lust and sexually – and morally – out of control. This is not true of most gay couples.
I will then go on to show that, in the context of the whole letter to the Romans, these verses only make sense as a caricature of Gentile culture by Jewish Christians, with a clear progression from idolatry to shameful, cultural practices to evil actions and finally to complete moral decay. The section about unnatural and shameful sex by women, and men going against nature in their sexual activities, falls into the category of cultural and social practices of the Gentiles that the Jews found disgusting – but they’re not evil, and God is not opposed to them. In fact, God is opposed to those who use cultural norms and societal preferences as a way of judging other Christians.
I’m then going to show that an understanding of the concepts of shame, “against nature” and what it means that God “gave them over” changes entirely what has been traditionally taught from Romans 1. This is not manipulation of the text, but rather a proper exegetical analysis of the words, concepts and original meaning of the text.
I then want to tentatively suggest an even more progressive reading that suggests that Romans 1:18-32 might not even be Paul’s words, but rather is borrowed from local Jewish traditions. I am not entirely convinced by this reading of the text, but it does illustrate – and make sense of – some key issues in Romans, and will allow me to reiterate my main point and the way I believe we should be reading this part of Scripture. This looks especially at Romans 2, and how Paul refers back to Romans 1. I believe Romans 1 and 2 show clearly that Paul was referring to the bases on which Jewish Christians were judging their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters in Christ – and that Paul clearly tells them to stop doing this. We cannot, therefore, use Romans 1 to judge other Christians. The whole point of the letter to the Romans is to tell us to stop doing this:
- “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself.” Romans 14:13-14 (NIV)
Finally, I want to present some of the other ways in which progressive theologians are interpreting Romans 1. There’s a real risk of overloading you with a multitude of options that you’ll feel it easier to just revert to the traditional interpretation. My purpose in doing this is to show you that there are many ways to approach Romans 1, remaining true to evangelical exegetical traditions, that lead to the opposite conclusion from the traditional reading.
When we’ve finished looking at Romans, we’ll start looking at the positive case against homosexual practice. It’s important to note that even though we are able to show that the Biblical verses which seem to oppose homosexuality do not actually do so, the argument goes that we can’t ignore the creation principle that marriage is between one man and one woman who become one flesh. Even Jesus taught this. So we have to deal with foundational creation principles before we can say we have a Biblical mandate for same sex marriage. We’ll get to that in due course.
But we need to get through Romans 1 first.
Reading Romans With New Eyes
Before we even ask the questions we must ask about translations, context and the text, let’s just read this passage, as is, but with a specific situation in mind. Remember that the guiding question in our study is this: can two people of the same gender enter into a lifelong, monogamous, covenant-based relationship that includes sexual activity? I know we could have just asked: ‘can gay people get married’, but you’ll understand the need to be more specific a bit later.
So, imagine with me please that you are 25 years old, and have been a committed Christian for over ten years. You want to honour God in all you do and have been attending church your whole life. Imagine too that you are gay (LGB or T, you choose). You’ve known this most of your life, and you’ve recently found the partner of your dreams. You believe the Bible tells you that sex is for marriage, and you’re still a virgin because of that – waiting excitedly for your wedding night. As you dream of a lifetime ahead together, and wonder about marriage, you and your same-gender partner sit down to read Romans 1 because you want to be sure that you’re in God’s will.
So let’s read these verses together, and see what, if anything, they have to say to or about us, as this person. Remember that nowhere else in the Bible is there any condemnation of loving, lifelong same gender relationships (if you’re just dipping into this series here, this is Part 10, and you may want to go back and see all the other passages we’ve covered). I am using the NIV:
Romans 1:16-2:4 (NIV)
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
- This is great news. I’m a Gentile, but by faith have been accepted into God’s family. This seems to be a key theme in this letter: that God is God of all who accept Him by faith.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
- It must be horrible to try and live life without God. Some of my atheist friends don’t seem to be battling too much, though. Maybe that’s what it means to have a “darkened heart”.
“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
- I wonder if this is referring to a specific issue in Rome? Certainly none of my friends have any actual idols in their homes, in fact especially not my atheist friends. And none of them that I know of are struggling with sexual addiction. But maybe some of them are. In fact, I know two or three of the guys in our young adults group at church have had struggles with addiction to pornography, but I don’t think that’s because of idolatry. Paul must be addressing something to do with the Roman church in particular, or maybe something specific from the Old Testament times. It does seem to be about the past. Let’s keep reading.
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
- It must be horrible to be out of control in any way, but especially sexually. In books and movies, it seems to me that when people are dragged into sexual experimentation it just messes up their relationships and ultimately their lives. I have some straight friends who have had lesbian and homosexual encounters, and I know it freaked them out a bit. I’ve also had some gay friends who’ve tried to go straight, and that felt just as weird to be honest. I’m glad that I know who I am, and am secure in my sexual identity. And I am glad that I have kept myself sexually pure and waiting for marriage.
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
- Good grief, that’s quite a list of nasties there. I know a few people who should read that list a bit more often. Some of the kids in my Sunday School class could do with a healthy dose of obeying parents and reigning in the gossip – especially those teenage girls. As for me, I’m not a murderer or liar (often), so was feeling pretty good about myself as I started into the list. But being arrogant and boastful… well, that’s challenging for me. And I remember Jesus saying it’s not just what you do, but your thoughts and intentions too. I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who reads that list and is 100% OK? That’s a challenging set of verses. Lord, help me be more like you. Now, I seem to remember that Paul’s original letters had no chapters or verses in them, so let’s just flip the page and see what he says next…
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
- Whoops. I wonder if I need to apologise to my Sunday School class this Sunday at church?
“Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”
- Hhmm, I think Paul set me up there. Maybe that’s the point of the passage – to set up a picture of utter depravity that would revolt me, but allow me to feel morally superior, and then get to the main point, which is… wait, flip another page, oh yes:
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24 NIV
- I’m so glad that my partner and I have been able to keep ourselves sexually pure, ready for each other. Some of my friends definitely fit the descriptions I’ve just read, and I can see they’re hurting themselves with their out of control sexuality. Paul was right about the moral decay that comes after that. I want to make sure that I continue to give glory to God for what He has made me to be, and how He has preserved me thus far, and I want my marriage to continue to honour Him.
This thought experiment is not the defining feature of my analysis of Romans 1. We have this article, and three more to come in this series, to deal with what we find in these verses. Maybe you didn’t find that reading compelling in the slightest. That’s fine – just read on.
But for many people, when they come to these verses without the notion that God is against all homosexual behaviour, they battle to find a condemnation of lifelong, loving homosexuality here. Yes, Paul is definitely speaking against certain types of aberrant behaviours, and has a particular focus on the excesses of the homosexual community, but these verses do not speak of loving, committed same gender relationships. If you believe they do, then you have to wonder how any gay people could be Christians at all, remembering that Paul himself gives us the test for who is a Christian later in this letter:
- “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9 (NIV).
How would it be possible to be gay and be able to confess Jesus as Lord if all gay people have been entirely deluded and are completely at odds with God?
Those who hold the traditional view accuse those of us who do not of playing word games with the Bible, looking for loopholes and using fancy footwork in how we interpret certain verses. This is not true, and I hope this hasn’t been your view of this study thus far. Actually, I could make this very claim about the way traditionalists read these verses in Romans 1 (and 2 – they typically ignore the first verses of chapter 2, though). These verses are clearly against a certain set of behaviours and attitudes. They talk of people who have twisted their natural desires, who have taken things far into excess, and who are actively opposed to God and His ways, and who have been abandoned by God. There is nothing in the plain reading of these verses that condemns homosexuality that is controlled, disciplined, modest and experienced within the context of a monogamous and faithful relationship.
Maybe that’s enough for you and you’re convinced Romans 1 is not applicable to loving LGBT relationships today. You can skip forward a few studies to look at what Jesus said about marriage, and our discussion on covenant as a positive basis for gay marriage (coming November 2015). Otherwise, let’s look at these verses in more detail.
Read the verses in narrative context
The “plain reading” of Romans 1 seems to indicate that Paul has a specific set of excessive sinful behaviours in mind, rather than just homosexuality in general. To understand what Paul was concerned about, we can look at the specific words he uses to described the homosexual activity he talks about – we’ll do that in the next article in this series. However, before we even do that, the context of the whole letter to Rome sheds some light on what Paul is concerned about. We therefore need to understand the purpose and flow of the whole letter.
The letter to the church in Rome is Paul’s longest letter, and his most intricate argument. Many have seen it as a complete overview of Christian doctrine, but others feel Paul was dealing with a very specific issue as the ex-Jewish rabbi who became the “Apostle to the Gentiles”. The view of Romans as a systematic theology has always been problematic, especially in how to integrate chapters 9 – 11 into the flow of the book. Any explanation of the purpose of the letter must result in a consistent exegesis that makes sense of the whole letter. And seeing it a summary of the Gospel does not achieve this.
Therefore, most scholars believe that Paul was mainly addressing the issue of Jews and Gentiles and how they were to integrate in the New Testament era. He uses the central theme of covenant and God’s faithfulness and righteousness in covenant relationship to us as his main argument. One of today’s most celebrated theologians, N. T. Wright (who, by the way, is opposed to gay marriage) argues, for example, that Romans is:
- “A Jewish Theology for the Gentile world, and a welcome for Gentiles designed to make the Jewish world jealous… The creator/covenant god has brought his covenant purpose for Israel to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah, Jesus…. The actual argument of Romans, the ‘poetic sequence’ of the letter, relates to this underlying ‘narrative sequence,’ that is, the theological story of the creator’s dealings with Israel and the world, now retold so as to focus on Christ and the Spirit.” You can read an excellent summary of Wright’s approach to Romans here.
In fact, Wright goes further to suggest that Paul’s specific reason for writing the letter to church in Rome was to ensure that Jews and Gentiles in Rome worked together and acted as a unified church, in order to provide a base for his missionary activities in the West. This is a very compelling reading of the whole letter.
Paul’s letter to Rome was written from Corinth sometime in 56AD. Emperor Claudius had banished Jews from Rome in 49AD, leaving an entirely Gentile church to grow without Jewish influence – a unique circumstance in the early church era. Claudius died in 54AD, and Jews began to return to Rome. Jewish Christians would have come back to the Roman church but probably not welcomed with open arms – there was considerable tension throughout the region between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul was planning to use Rome as a base for his missionary work in the western Mediterranean, but was nervous that Rome would succumb to the problems that had happened in Antioch when he was based there, when Jewish Christians had tried to impose Jewish traditions on the church there, and caused deep divisions between Jews and Gentiles. These problems are explained in Galatians 2 and Acts 15, including a confrontation Paul had with Peter himself over the issue of the divide between Jews and Gentiles in the early church.
This issue of the divide between Jews and Gentiles was the single most significant issue that the early church had to deal with, and was its first crisis. It’s no surprise then that Paul dedicates a whole letter to the issue, and that in this letter we see some of his most passionate and insightful writings. This letter to the Roman church was written in order to show that the Gospel might have come to the Jews first, but it is intended for everyone. Gentiles should not marginalise Jews, nor Jews impose their Judaistic history on the Gentiles. Gentiles should not look down on Jews for their ancient spiritual practices. Jews should not try and impose these practices on Gentiles. Jews should not look down on Gentiles for some of the cultural practices of the Greeks and Romans. And Gentiles should be careful not to assimilate too closely to the Graeco-Roman culture, especially when doing so caused their Jewish brothers and sisters to battle with their faith. For example, in Acts 15:28-29, in a letter written to the churches, Christians were told that the Jewish law was no longer applicable, but that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols and from sexual immorality. Paul specifically overrides this in Romans, with a few references to food sacrificed to idols, explaining that there are no issues with this at all in itself, but that Christians should be sensitive to each other, and especially sensitive to their weaker brothers and sisters and those with less faith (see Romans 14 in particular).
In order to make his point very clearly, Paul begins his letter by using standard Jewish critiques of Gentiles, and especially Jewish critiques of Rome itself. These include the Jewish disgust of public nudity, public displays of sensuousness, the revealing clothes the Romans wore, homosexual relationships, and Gentile eating habits. The Jewish Christians were especially concerned by the Gentile Christians who still frequented the temples and ate food sacrificed at the temples. All of these issues were general concerns in many locations at the time – passages similar to Romans 1:18-32 can be found in The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example (in fact, some scholars suggest that Romans 1:18-32 are actually part of well-known Hellenistic Jewish literature which Paul goes on to critique in Romans 2 – we’ll look at this in the next section of this series).
But then, having talked about the Gentiles using a very Jewish critique of them, he actually turns the tables in Romans 2. Remember that Paul did not have chapter and verse divisions in his letter, so we should not stop reading at the end of chapter 1 – Paul’s letter flows straight on into chapter 2. And here he immediately turns the tables on the reader. It is stinging:
- “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Romans 2:1 (NIV).
The key to understanding Romans 1:18-32 are two words in Romans 2:1: an address in the vocative case, and a conjunction – “You, therefore”. The vocative in language is used to address someone or something directly. In English, we don’t have a particular word form (case) to indicate this; instead, we use grammar. Consider the difference between, “I don’t believe, Mary” and “I don’t believe Mary”. In the first sentence, Mary is being addressed and I am expressing something about my belief to her. This is the vocative. The second sentence is very different indeed, where Mary is the object of my disbelief.
Romans 2:1 uses a vocative case for “You” or “Oh man,” (Greek: ὦ ἄνθρωπε) indicating direct address. But who is the “man” (ἄνθρωπος) – the “you” – Paul is addressing here? Is it the evil people of Romans 1? Or is it someone who has read Romans 1:18-32 and agreed with it, that Paul now turns to and reprimands (but without refuting the content of Romans 1)? Or is it the author of Romans 1:18-32 whom Paul wishes to refute? Like my examples above, the use or not of a vocative case can make a really big difference to the meaning of a sentence or paragraph. And it could all come down to a punctuation mark.
No explanation of Romans 1 makes any sense without explaining Romans 2. The “plain reading” of these two chapters makes this clear.
The only reading that fits into the overall flow of Romans and makes sense of the message of the letter is that in Romans 2:1 the shift to the direct address (the second person singular), along with the coordinating conjunction (Greek: διό), indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for writing Romans 1:18-32 is now the person addressed. This changes the whole meaning of Romans 1, as Paul makes it very clear that it is the people who believe these things about the Gentiles who will incur God’s wrath:
- “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” Romans 2:5 NIV
This is a complete reversal of what most people think Romans 1 is saying. This is Paul’s whole point.
Paul is not stating what he actually believes about Gentiles in Romans 1, but rather is referencing standard Jewish concerns with Gentiles. Paul is doing this to set up a series of statements that many of his Jewish readers would agree with, and then “zinging” them by saying that they shouldn’t be thinking like this at all. We see this in Romans 2.
What he’s going to go on to show is that it is a huge problem that both Jews and Gentiles have fallen short of God’s intentions. If the problems of the world were meant to be solved by God’s chosen people, the Jews, but they’ve also succumbed to sin and rebellion like the Gentiles, then God’s entire covenant relationship with the world is at risk. This explains the questions of 3:1-8. The solution comes in Romans 3:21, where Paul shows that the covenant has been secured in a different way – through the faithfulness of Jesus, for the benefit of Jews and Gentiles. Since Abraham is the father of all by faith, not in flesh or by descent, works of the law (especially circumcision) have no part in this new covenant (chapter 4). The full restoration of all creation has been fulfilled in Christ, and the covenant promises of the Jews are now given to all believers, Jew and Gentile (chapters 5-8). This transition from a promise given to a nation promise to a promise by faith available to all was actually always God’s intent, and not a failure on Israel’s part. Jews are welcomed equally with Gentiles, not rejected (chapters 9-11). So now the church must live in unity, characterised by love – for each other and for everyone (chapters 12-13). Unity requires agreeing to remain in diversity and accept differences in the way we express our faith (chapters 14-16).
As N. T. Wright puts it: “The poetic sequence of Romans, therefore, consists of a major argument, as is now regularly recognized, running not just as far as chap. 8 but all the way to chap. 11. A good deal of this argument is a matter of setting up the terms of the discussion so that they can then be used quite directly when the real issue is confronted head on. Once the great argument is complete, Paul can turn to other matters in chaps. 12-16. These are not to be marginalized: 15:7-13, for instance, has a good claim to be considered the real summing-up of the entire letter, not merely of 14:1—15:6.”
Please read Romans 15:7-13 now. It starts like this: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
This is the point Paul is making: Jews and Gentiles alike have disappointed God, but God is faithful and has established a new covenant with us, in Jesus.
This does not mean that we can ignore the list of behaviours in Romans 1, and that everything in those lists is acceptable behaviour. We’ll come back in a later part of this series to see that there is a clear progression in Romans 1 from walking away from God through cultural unacceptable behaviour to sinful actions to complete moral breakdown. But for now it is enough to note that Paul’s main point is Romans 2, not Romans 1.
What does this mean for understanding Romans 1:18-32?
There are a few key points to make here:
- Paul has very little interest in the actual sins listed in Romans 1:16-32. He’s much more concerned about what the Jews think about this list of Gentile behaviours.
- Homosexuality is therefore not singled out here as a “worse than any other” sin. The Jews may have had a particular revulsion towards it, and this is more the point of the passage. Paul wants his readers to see “other people” as vile as a way of pointing out that we’re all the same. This does not mean that these things are not sinful. I am merely pointing out that Paul is attempting to identify particular sins that Jews would have had an emotional reaction to, without himself passing judgement on these activities.
- As with all the other Biblical references to same gender sexual activity we’ve looked at so far, there is a link here to idolatry. This cannot be ignored or explained away. Paul specifically positions the sexual sins in this passage in the context of idol worship, and therefore cultic temple practices. He was writing from Corinth, and we’ve seen what was happening in that city. And he was writing to Rome, the heart of the cultic practices associated with Roman gods and the state religion. Idolatry and immorality are completely intertwined in both Old and New Testament contexts.
- Paul’s intent is to showcase people consumed by sinful excess. Think about this: every child in the history of the world – including Jesus himself – has disobeyed their parents at some stage. Paul does not mean that a few acts of disobedience against parents is a sign of God “giving the children over” to a “depraved mind.” The people Paul has in mind are those who have taken these activities to excess – that is where sin resides. Notice the language of Romans 1:29 onwards: the people Paul is talking about are consumed, filled with evil, fixated on doing wrong, and totally devoid of any understanding, love or empathy. These are vile people beyond the edge of acceptable morality. Paul has nothing to say here to LGBT people in general. He is specifically thinking about people pushing the boundaries of sexuality, and especially about those involved in cultic sexual practices, as we’ve seen before.
- Do not stop reading at the end of chapter 1. The chapter and verse divisions were added much later, and there is no divide in the original text. The plain English reading of the first few verses of Romans 2 indicates that Paul is turning around the message people thought they were getting in Romans 1. He’s set us up. And this is the point of Romans 1.
- Throughout Romans, the emphasis is on God’s love, faithfulness and kindness to us. This theme has already been set up in Romans 1:7 and 1:16 and continues unabated through the letter from Romans 3 onwards. So, here in Romans 1:16-32 and only here do we read of God’s wrath against people. It doesn’t seem to fit the flow of Paul’s letter, unless we’ve misunderstood what this passage is about. I think we have.
With these thoughts in mind, it’s quite difficult to imagine that Paul would use these verses to speak against lifelong, loving, covenantal same gender relationships. The emphasis of Romans 1 is that people who push the boundaries of their behaviour to unnatural extents are sinning against God. But all of us do this in one way or another, and we’re all in need of God’s grace.
My point is simple: these verses do not speak against homosexuality as we are considering it today in modern society. Unless, of course, there is something inherently unnatural about LGBT activity. This, then, can be the only objection to homosexuality (we’ll get to that in the next two parts of this series, and see what Jesus said about marriage too).
We’ll look in more detail at whether homosexuality is indeed inherently unnatural in the next part of this series.
Previous article in this series: The ‘Soft’ in 1 Corinthians – the meaning of ‘malakos‘
Next article in this series: Shameful Acts and Going Against Nature
Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.
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