In the previous section of this series, we showed that the letter to the Romans only makes sense as Paul’s treatise to Jewish and Gentile Christians to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and not to let their various cultural practices get in the way of this. Paul shows the Jews that although they are God’s chosen people and believe that they have a special status in eternity, actually they have failed God just like everyone else. Paul’s intent in Romans 1 is to set the Jewish believers up a bit, by caricaturing Gentile sinners, and sucker punching Jewish readers in Romans 2.
But this does not deal with the fact that Paul lists a lot of sins in Romans 1, and clearly indicates that these actions are evil. That Jews and Gentiles have both sinned does not reduce the impact of the list of sins in Romans 1. But does Paul really say that homosexuality is sinful? He says it is shameful. He says it is against nature. But is this the same as being sinful? And what exactly are the sins (and shameful things that are against nature) that Paul is concerned about?
The main traditional argument against homosexuality misreads Romans 1. It sees it as Paul’s condemnation of the Gentiles on the basis of their rejection of God and especially what is often called “creation order”. The traditional view is based on the view that God created man and woman, making them suitable for each other and that this is the only form of marriage allowed in Scripture. It argues that Jesus Himself (in Matthew 19 and Mark 10) appears to affirm that issues related to marriage hinge on how God created humanity (although Jesus was actually answering a specific question about divorce – we’ll deal specifically with Jesus’ comments later in this series). Therefore, the traditional argument says, the sin of homosexuality is the giving up of natural desires and engaging in unnatural acts, which are defined as any same gender sexual activity.
But this is not what Paul actually says. As we have to do with all Biblical passages, we need to look more closely at the words and phrases used and see if they’re as clear in the original language and context as we imagine them to be in our own. When we do this, we find immediately that they are not. “Shameful” or “degrading” practices are clearly linked to cultural preferences. And going “against nature” does not mean something that is inherently evil, but rather something that is against accepted practice. When read in the light of this understanding, we see a clear progression in Paul’s description of a descent into moral decay, from idolatry to culturally unacceptable behaviour to sinful actions to moral decay to the complete destruction of humanity (we’ll come back to this in the next section in more detail). Homosexuality falls into the culturally unacceptable category, and is not considered sinful and evil.
But let me not get ahead of myself here. Have a look for yourself.
Shameful Lusts and Vile Affections
In Romans 1:18-32, Paul starts by stating a concern for idolatry. People have stopped worshipping God, who should be obviously known to them through the creation they live in. They turn to idol worship instead, and God allows them to experience life without Him.
Paul goes on to say that these idol worshipping people have been abandoned by God, who has “given them over” to “sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Rom. 1:24). He then expands on this, saying that, “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” (Rom. 1:26-27 NIV).
The Greek word for “shameful” (NIV) in verse 26 is atimia (Greek: ἀτιμία). It means something dishonourable, not highly valued, not held in honour or not respected. A better translation in English, to convey the true meaning would be “ill reputed” or “socially unacceptable”. The word refers to something that is culturally unacceptable, rather than something that is morally wrong.
Paul does call a number of things in this passage sinful, so we know that he has some evil deeds in mind. In verse 18, Paul uses the word adikian (Greek: ἀδικίαν) to refer to “wickedness” (NIV), and this is specifically in relation to idolatry (a key theme so far in our study). He is going to use the word again in verse 29, where he will list sins that demonstrate the “depraved minds” of people (verse 28). These references to wickedness bracket the section on same gender sexual activity. But in verses 26 and 27, Paul uses atimia to describe the actions he is talking about. The plain meaning of this description is something culturally unacceptably, and does not carry a moral connotation.
To prove this – beyond just the meaning of the word itself – let’s look at the other usages of atimia by Paul. In Romans 9:21, atimia refers to a potter making a pot “for common use”. This is a euphemism for a chamber pot – not morally unclean, but culturally unacceptable to talk about in public (you may also not know what a “chamber pot” is, since modern society is often as demure as the ancient Jews – it was a pot into which people could urinate or defecate at night, which would be cleaned out in the morning). This same usage is found in 2 Timothy 2:20. In 2 Corinthians 6:8 Paul talks of being “shamed” for the Gospel, and in 2 Cor. 11:21 he refers to again to himself as atimia, translated in the NIV as “To my shame…”. Paul is saying that sometimes he is held in disrepute or shame because of his commitment to Christ. He clearly is not suggesting that he has done something morally wrong for the sake of the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 11:14 Paul uses the word to suggest that it is “shameful” for a man to wear long hair. This is clearly not a moral condemnation, nor a creation ordinance built into the order of the world.
Not one of the other New Testament usages of this word expresses a moral judgment – it is consistently used to refer to cultural preferences and societal norms. So when Paul calls certain passions “shameful” in Romans 1:26, he is not saying they are wrong; he is merely saying they do not enjoy social approval and are culturally unacceptable. This links strongly to the points made in the previous post, that the purpose of this passage is to highlight Jewish social disgust at how some Roman’s lived, but without passing a moral judgement on them.
Similarly, when talking about male homosexuality in Romans 1:27, Paul says that men committed “shameful” acts with other men. This word is aschemosyne (Greek: ἀσχημοσύνην). The word literally means “not according to form.” We derive the English words “scheme” or “schematic” from the root, and these retain the sense of something that adheres to an expected pattern. The sense of the word is “not nice”, “unseemly” or “inappropriate”.
As with atimia, when we look at other usages of the word, the cultural connotation is obvious. In 1 Corinthians 12:23, Paul uses aschemosyne to refer to the “uncomely” or “unpresentable” parts of the body. Of course, he means the genitals, but he is sensitive to Jewish culture and their unwillingness to even name private body parts. This is not because it is evil to do so, but just because they find it socially unacceptable. The word is used in a similar way in Revelation 16:15. These references have no moral judgment in them.
Paul had words he could have used to ensure we understood that the same-gender sexual activity referred to in Romans 1 was sinful and morally wrong. Instead, he uses words that clearly portray the sense of something that is merely culturally unacceptable. We’ll see in more detail in the next part of this study why Paul does this, and how we are to read the lists of sins in verses 29 to 32. But for now, it is clear to see that what Paul calls “shameful” (NIV) or “unseemly” (KJV).
But let’s look even closer, because Paul talks of the women and men giving up their “natural” desires for each other, and turning to “unnatural” desires for the same gender.
The phrase Paul uses in Romans 1:26 for “unnatural” or “against nature” is para physin (Greek: παρὰ φύσιν). The Greek word para usually means “besides”, “more than”, “over and above” or “beyond”. In English, we use this word to indicate the same thing, for example a paralegal is someone not totally qualified to be a lawyer, but who assists a real lawyer; and paranormal is something other than normal (rather than “opposed to normal”). In the Romans 1 context, the phrase para physin could mean “more than nature” or “beyond nature”, but is probably better rendered “contrary to nature” as most modern translations have it. But the sense of the phrase is not “in opposition to the laws of nature” but rather “unexpected” or “in an unusual way”. We might say, for example: “Contrary to his nature, John woke up early and went for a run.” This is not a moral issue, but refers to the character of something or someone.
This concept of “according to nature” or “contrary to nature” needs to be understood properly in context. It is only since the Renaissance that the concept of “natural law” has embedded itself in Western philosophy. In Paul’s world, the concept of “natural law” was something linked with Stoicism, and referred mainly to socially unacceptable behaviour. It was a commonly used concept, and was not typically associated with moral rights and wrongs built into the fabric of reality as we perceive it today. For example, the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus criticised men who shaved their body hair in order to look more like women, saying that such men act “against [their] nature” (physis) (Discourses 3.1.27–37). Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Paul living in Alexandria, used para physin three times in his On the Special Laws (3.7-82), where he applies it to: (1) intercourse between a man and women during her menstrual period, (2) intercourse between a man and a boy (pederasty), and (3) intercourse between a person and an animal (bestiality). He also calls men who have sex with barren women (instead of divorcing them and remarrying) “enemies of nature”. While we might find pederasty and bestiality vile and evil, what do we make of the other issues? The defining characteristic of these sexual activities is not consent, or mutuality or love. The defining characteristic that groups them together is that there is no possibility of having children. This is what is defined as “unnatural sex” in classical literature.
For early Jews in particular, The Alexandrian school had a great influence in what was considered “natural”. In the third century Clement of Alexandria asserted that “to have sex for any purpose other than to produce children is to violate nature.” This concept was also taught by Philo (to a Jewish audience). For him, any use of human sexuality which did not produce children “violated nature”. For some early Christians, celibacy was as unnatural as homosexuality, and so was masturbation. Failure to divorce a barren wife was “unnatural” as well. Jewish thinking, then and often even today, believed that “unnatural sex” is any sexual activity which is not capable of inseminating a woman. This is not a moral category, but a cultural one. For example, Maimonides, an early Jewish scholar within the Rabbinic tradition (and hostile to homosexuality as well, by the way) addressed the issue of “unnatural sex” between a husband and wife:
- “A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore he may do whatever he wishes with his wife. He may have intercourse with her at any time he wishes and kiss her on whatever limb of her body he wants. He may have natural or unnatural sex, as long as he does not bring forth seed in vain.”
In a discussion of Jewish attitudes to sex, modern day Rabbi Michael Gold addresses what the issue of “natural and unnatural” means in a Jewish context:
- “Unnatural sex [biah lo k’darchah] refers to any sexual activity where semination is not in the traditional place, including oral sex, anal sex or ‘threshing within and winnowing without’ (premature withdrawal).”
As a final example, Artemidorus categorised certain sex acts that people dreamed of as para physin, including self-fellatio, sex with an animal, sex with a corpse, and lesbian coitus — although he only described sex between two men as “unconventional” (Interpretation of Dreams, chapters 78-80). Clearly para physin can be used to describe horrible sexual acts that we would consider sinful to this day. But this is not how these classical philosophers are using the phrase: they only mean to imply that these acts are against cultural convention or socially acceptable behaviours. We’ve already seen the very different approach to sex these classical thinkers had.
Back to the Bible: Paul’s Understanding of ‘Nature’
That background in classical literature may or may not be of interest to you. But we don’t have to look to classical philosophy or Jewish scholarship to see that para physin is not a moral category – the Bible itself uses the phrase a few times, and we can see in these passages that it is not a moral issue.
Paul writes of “uncircumcised” people being Gentiles “by nature,” (ek physeōs) in Romans 2:27, while the Jews are Jews (or circumcised) “by nature” (physei) in Galatians 2:15. Paul constantly had to remind Jews that circumcision (and being Jewish itself) was not a moral requirement or an eternal command. It was a cultural practice and a social norm only. It certainly had spiritual significance, and might even have had the status of a sacrament as we might think of sacraments today. But, circumcision had never been the act that saved – Paul is clear: that was faith alone. Circumcision had been a sign for the Jews, and it had now lost its meaning and was unnecessary. In this way, it was a cultural vestige and social requirement, not a spiritual or moral one.
Probably the most important parallel usage of this phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 11:14. Paul asks, “Does not nature itself tell you that it is shameful for a man to have long hair”. Read that carefully – Paul uses exactly the same language structure when talking about the length of men’s hair as he does talking about same gender sexual activity. The “nature” Paul is talking about here is clearly socially accepted norms and standards, not a moral law.
Just as significantly, in Romans 11:24, the phrase is applied to God’s actions of bringing the Gentiles into His Kingdom. They are grafted, “against nature”, into the tree that is Judaism. It’s important to note that this illustration in Romans 11 is the very point of the whole letter to the Romans, and provides a powerful counterpoint to the way in which Jewish Christians were thinking about Gentiles in Romans 1. Paul is saying, “you Jews might think that some of the actions of Gentiles are socially unacceptable, but God has done something even more culturally unacceptable to you as Jews: he’s included these Gentiles in His Kingdom, alongside you”. The key point here is simple: if God Himself can do something para physin it clearly cannot be something inherently evil or immoral.
What the women were doing
So far, then, the actual words and phrases used in this passage indicate that Paul is making statements about cultural practices, not moral rights and wrongs, when he talks about homosexual activity and the sexual practices of the Roman Gentiles. The evidence is very clear that this is the best translation. But, in case you’re still battling with this significant shift from the traditional interpretation, let’s go further and look at what these unnatural and shameful acts actually were. Even if Paul was condemning these acts, what was he actually condemning?
“Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” Romans 1:26 (NIV)
Does this verse say women were having sex with women? No, it doesn’t. It simply says that women were doing something unnatural with their bodies. We need to be careful that we don’t decide what we think is unnatural, but rather do our best to work out what Paul believed this to be. We’ve seen what Jewish Christians would have considered to be “unnatural sex” – these were culturally conditioned sexual activities.
Don’t forget that the Old Testament never mentions, nor prohibits, lesbian sexual activity. In fact, there is almost no acknowledgement of female sexuality at all – the focus of all sexual prohibitions and instructions is the male. This is in line with Jewish – and ancient cultural – views on both gender and procreation. As we saw previously, ancient cultures believed that all life was in the sperm, with the woman providing nothing more than an incubator for the foetus. That women would enjoy sex, or take an active role in it, was almost unthinkable. And for women to take a dominant role in sexual activity was considered, well, unnatural.
The words Paul uses are important. The NIV talks in verse 26 of women exchanging “natural use” for that which is “unnatural” (or “contrary to nature”). The word for “use”, which the NIV translates as “sexual relations” is chrēsin (Greek: χρῆσιν). This is repeated again in verse 27. This word is only used here in the Bible, but is used frequently in other literature of the time, and meant “use, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse.” The emphasis of this word is on the functionality of the sex, which as we have seen was considered to be insemination and procreation. Any sex that could not result in insemination is “unnatural”, and that’s why Paul references homosexual sex in verse 27, specifically mentioning two men, whilst in verse 26 he does not specify the partner of the woman. To be clear, then, the prohibitions on women having sex that was considered inappropriate include having sex during menstruation, oral or anal sex (these would involve non-procreative ejaculation), or mutual masturbation. Paul could also have been referring to having sex with an uncircumcised man.
Of course, this verse could be referring to lesbian sexual activity, but this is by no means certain. In fact, it is unlikely.
While verse 26 does not specify the partner of the women’s unnatural relations, most traditional interpreters use verse 27 (which refers to male homosexuality) to interpret verse 26, assuming it to be referring to female homosexuality. In classical literature, however, lesbianism is never discussed in this way. As we’ve previously seen, male homosexuality was discussed a lot in classical literature. When female homosexuality was discussed, it was always preceded by discussions of male homosexuality, which was itself typically preceded by discussions on unnatural heterosexual sexual activity. This is a very typical progression when dealing with sexual issues in ancient literature. It’s very unlikely that Paul would break with this literary form, unless he was trying to make a different point. To say that Romans 1:26 forbids lesbian sexual activity is to read much more into the verse than is actually there.
Why is this important? Well, it is further evidence that Paul is not condemning homosexuality – and he isn’t even mentioning lesbianism. He is saying that any sexual activity that is not aimed at insemination is considered socially unacceptable to the Jews. He’s going to go on in Romans 2:1 to tell the Jews to get over themselves and stop thinking like this. And he’s going to sum up his whole argument in Romans 14:13-14 by saying, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. … I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself.”
What The Men Were Doing
So much for the women; what about the men? What does Paul actually condemn in verse 27-28, when saying, “the men 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.” (NIV)
We’ve seen that the “shameful acts” Paul is referencing are cultural issues, and that going “against nature” is similarly going against social norms – but even so, what actual activities did Paul have in mind? His references are broad and nonspecific.
We know that Paul is deliberately referencing Leviticus and the Holiness Code, and as we saw earlier, the issues Moses was concerned about related to idolatry and temple prostitution. This is, once again, the Bible’s core concern – that Christians in Rome not align themselves with the activities characteristic of temple worship in Rome. Paul was no doubt thinking about temple prostitution (he was writing from Corinth after all, and we saw his issues with that city earlier in this study). He could have been referring to pederasty, as we have also seen previously. Some have argued that it could not be pederasty as it says the men were inflamed with lust “for each other” and pederasty was characterised by being an abusive, one way relationship. Actually, in Rome, it was very common for young boys to give themselves to older men as a way of gaining social advantage. Mark Anthony had famously done this when he was a teenager, but was by no means an isolated case. This kind of mutuality in pederasty was considered “unnatural” (as in socially unacceptable) by Jews and most Gentiles as well. This is what Martti Nissinen believes is being referenced (Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective).
We must not forget that homosexuality was an embedded part of Roman and Greek culture. It was not just commonplace – it was accepted as normal. As we have previously seen, married men had gay lovers, homosexual marriage was socially accepted and sexual activity was a normal part of cultic worship. We’re going to come back to the issue of a Biblical sexual ethic later in this study, but for now it’s enough to note that if Paul was actually trying to condemn the typical homosexual activity in Rome, his words actually don’t go far enough. Paul is concerned here with men who’s sexuality is out of control.
Remember too that chrēsis (“use”) means “[mis]use” of another person upon whom a sexual act has been performed, and could apply to pederasty or temple prostitution. Both of these issues would make sense in the context of the passage, and be consistent with everything we’ve seen in Scripture so far. It definitely has the tone of abuse, excess and being out of control. The men are “inflamed with lust”. Was he just condemning the behaviours, or does the “plain reading” of the text indicate that Paul’s concern is at least as much about HOW these actions were done as WHAT the actions were? If someone is engaged in homosexual sexual activity without being “inflamed by lust” would Paul have a problem with it?
And what must we make of the final statement, that the men “received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” What does this mean? If we can’t be sure of what this is, we need to be careful of how quickly we use these verses to condemn homosexuals. Some argue that this what AIDS is, but this is a ludicrous argument that only makes sense in our generation – what were the punishments for gay men in previous centuries? And what about homosexuals who don’t get AIDS? Is God happy with them? We don’t know what this punishment is that Paul refers to. But whatever it means, note that Paul calls their actions an “error”, rather than a “sin” or “wickedness”. An error may be sin, but it may not be. Given everything else we’ve seen so far in this study, can you really be so sure that finally, here, we find God’s divine edict against male same gender sexual activity?
If today’s LGBT people express their sexual activity without being “inflamed with lust”, and do not receive “the due penalty” in their bodies, can we say that God is not against their activity? I don’t think this is a question worth pursuing, because this is not what Paul means in these verses. I hope that is clear by now. Those who hold to the traditional view need to explain these verses much more clearly and specifically – they’re not as clear as they may first appear.
A Quick Thought Experiment: Implications of Being Against Nature
Just as an aside – and a thought experiment – if you still think that “against nature” is something that is against the way things were created, then where does this concept start and end? Is it only applicable to same-gender sexual activity and hairstyles, since these are the only things specified in the Bible as “against nature”? Or do we apply this “creation principle” to other issues?
Is cloning “para physin”? Or genetic modification? Or cosmetic surgery? Or any surgery, for that matter?
Is flying “para physin”? I am being serious: surely human beings were not designed or made to fly? Surely God never intended us to fly? If He did, He would have given us wings.
You might think I am being silly, but it’s a serious question: what issues are against nature, if “against nature” is something that is a moral, universal law of right and wrong, based on what we were created to do and be?
In her online paper, “Hermeneutics of Homosexuality“, Marilyn Riedel explains:
- “The concept of “natural law” was not fully developed until more than a millennium after Paul’s death. He thought ‘nature’ was not a question of universal law or truth but, rather, a matter of the character of some person or group of persons, character which was largely ethnic and entirely human: Jews are Jews ‘by nature,’ just as Gentiles are Gentiles ‘by nature.’ ‘Nature’ is not a moral force for Paul: humankind may be evil or good ‘by nature,’ depending on their own disposition. Paul uses ‘nature’ in the possessive, that is, not in the abstract ‘nature’ but as someone’s nature. Paul is therefore writing about the personal nature of the pagans in question.”
So, being “against nature” is not something that is morally wrong, but rather indicates something that is against what the writer – and/or reader – would see as normal, expected and usual. This is how anyone in the ancient world would have understood this phrase. These references to sexual acts and situations that were “against nature” were not so described because they were perceived to be morally wrong, but just because they were unusual, socially unacceptable or not normal.
Paul’s Word to Us Today
The audience of Paul’s letter was relying on cultural dislikes rather than God’s Word. They were splitting the church over their rules, not God’s rules. Ironically, we are doing the same thing today; not over what is pure and impure, but over heterosexual and homosexual sexual activity. Paul’s letter was written to people who were relying on cultural dislikes rather than God’s Word. Paul tells them in no uncertain terms to stop doing this. Many churches are doing the same thing today. They should stop.
By misunderstanding and misrepresenting Paul’s argument people unwittingly rely on personal tastes and social customs instead of on God’s Word. They argue about what’s dirty or clean, dispute who’s pure and impure, and condemn homosexuals. Paul tells them to stop. Paul tells us to stop.
Paul’s purpose in his letter is to encourage unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and to help them overcome the way they each saw each others’ cultural practices. Gentiles despised circumcision, and did not like the dietary laws of the Jews; and the Jews were disgusted by a whole range of Gentile practices, especially the way they flaunted their bodies in public at their bath houses, and their sexual habits. We’ve seen previously that for the Jews many of these things were considered toevah. In Leviticus, these are often translated “abominations”, but they refer to things that are ritual taboos or impurities, considered unacceptable for Jewish society.
These inferences to Leviticus are Paul’s point. He wants the Jewish readers of his letter to recognise their own cultural prejudices. There were words, both Hebrew and Greek, that meant “morally or ethically wrong”. Those words could have been used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 but, as we have previously seen, those words were not used. Similarly here in Romans 1, Paul chooses not to use these words. In fact, words denoting moral or ethical wrong are used in Romans 1, as we have seen above.
So, with all of this information now understood, let’s see the flow of the passage in Romans 1:18-32:
- The sin (adikia) of turning one’s back on God and worshipping false gods and idols (Rom. 1:18-25) resulted in behaviour that was culturally unacceptable (atimai and para physin) to the Jewish Christians (Rom. 1:26-27) and it progressed even further to more sinful activities by the Gentiles (adikia) (Rom. 1:28-32). But Jews shouldn’t think that you can look at Gentiles with disgust (Rom. 2:1-5). Jews have their own culturally unacceptable practices (especially circumcision) (Rom. 2:25ff), and not recognise that they have also fallen short of God’s holy requirements (Rom. 2). In fact, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned, and all have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:22-23).”
Paul was not invoking a “creation ordinance” in Romans 1:26-27. He is showcasing the Jewish view of Roman culture, and telling the Jews to stop thinking this way in Romans 2:1ff.
In the next section of this study, we’ll look at the flow of Paul’s argument and show how everything we’ve looked at so far fits together to make sense of Romans 1 through 3.
Previous article in this series: Part 10: Re-Read Romans 1
Next article in this series: What Romans 1 is Really All About
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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