The Bible and Same Sex Relationships, Part 12: What Romans 1 is Really All About


  • As we have seen, Paul’s purpose in the letter to the Romans is to encourage Jewish and Gentile Christians to be more accepting of each other, and to be careful not to judge each other based on issues that are merely cultural preferences or in built bias.
  • The purpose of Romans 1:16-32 is to outline a typical Jewish critique of Gentiles, with a progression from abandoning God and turning to idolatry, which leads to socially unacceptable behaviour, which slides downwards to sinful, wicked actions and eventually ends in complete moral collapse.
  • Romans 1 cannot be understood without Romans 2, where there is a radical shift from the third to the second person (from “them” and “they” to “you”), and a direct and specific command not to judge others on the basis of the content in chapter 1. This is a central theme of the letter, and from the context of the whole letter it’s clear that Romans 1 cannot and should not be used to condemn homosexual activity.
  • Similar writings that would have been well-known at the time of Paul’s letter help to strengthen this view that Paul is using Romans 1 to highlight the faulty thinking of the Jewish Christians in Rome.
  • Even so, the flow of this passage is clearly framed in the context of idolatry, cultic temple practices and Roman pagan activities in which same-gender sexual activity played a major part, and does not apply to loving, lifelong homosexual relationships today.
  • To add to this reading of Romans 1, it is vital to remember that the “sin of homosexuality” – if it is a sin at all – is only in the sexual activity itself. Those opposed to homosexuality can only be opposed to the actual sexual activity, rather than to any “orientation”, feelings of love, and even lifelong commitments of companionship and fidelity. Knowing this, when we read Romans 1 it’s obvious to see that Paul is concerned about sexual activities that are excessive and out of control. He’s not talking about loving, faithful gay relationships.

This is the third part of this series that looks at Romans 1 (Read the first section here, and the second here). This part of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is the most significant set of verses used to oppose homosexuality, and so it’s worth spending some time on. Thus far, I’ve shown three problems with the traditional reading:

  1. A plain reading of the text makes it clear that Paul is talking about people who are filled with lust, sexually out of control and who are descending into moral bankruptcy. This is not relevant to God-fearing, loving gay couples.
  2. There are sins – evil and wicked actions – listed in Romans 1. But there are also certain activities that Paul calls “culturally unacceptable” – these are not wicked actions and God is not opposed to them. In Romans 2, Paul will talk about circumcision in this way, and he’ll return to this theme over and over again in this letter, using many different examples, including observance of holy days and food sacrificed at the temples. In Romans 1, he talks about male homosexuality and women who have sex for pleasure alone (“unnatural sex” in the Jewish worldview), and says that some Christians find these socially unacceptable. But they are not evil or sinful. Do not call anything unclean, when God has not called it unclean.
  3. The purpose of Romans 1 is Romans 2 – you cannot read the first without the second. It is clear when you do so that Paul’s main point is that we should NOT judge other people on the basis of the actions he listed in Romans 1.

I want to go even further in this part of the series and summarise all the points I’ve made so far by showing you that Paul has a progression in mind: These people have abandoned God, and started worshipping idols. As God abandons them to this, they slip into a lifestyle that spirals ever downward until it is characterised by “no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (verse 31). The progression, as we will see below, is from socially unacceptable behaviour to morally wrong actions, to complete loss of humanity. Paul is going to show the Jewish readers that they have a similar progression of issues that other people could point to as signs of them not being committed to God enough. This completely changes how we should read the verses on homosexuality, and makes the most sense of Romans 2, and, in fact, the whole letter. I will then show again – at the risk of repeating myself too much – the importance of Romans 2 (and the rest of the letter) to understanding how we interpret Romans 1. This is a vital key to identifying how we have so badly misinterpreted Romans 1 for so long.

What the sin actually is

Before we do this, though, I want to talk to those of you who still believe that God is opposed to homosexuality. Assuming you are right for just a moment, it’s still important to ask what this might mean. What part of “being homosexual” is actually sinful?

It makes no difference whether we believe homosexuality is a choice or an orientation (something built into the design of a person from birth). Conservative Christians believe that we are all sinful from birth, and saved by God’s grace alone. Having an orientation towards any sinful behaviour is no excuse to act out on that orientation. God’s general judgement on all people is against our sinful natures, but His specific judgement for each of us individually (those things we’ll be held accountable for) is on what we do and do not do (including what we think and do not think). If homosexuality is a sin in any way, then, the sin that God would be concerned about would be same-gender sexual activity. No-one should be judged for being gay; they should only be judged (if they should be judged at all) for doing gay (if you see what I mean).

Therefore, two people could commit themselves to each other in a covenant relationship, living together, sharing assets and experiences, and agree to stay celibate – for conservative Christians this would not be considered sinful. (We’ll return to this later in this series and ask if this is indeed a legitimate option.) If you are a conservative Christian, please make sure you’re clear about this point: the only possible sin here is actual same gender sexual activity. Loving someone of the same gender is not sinful, and neither is feeing same sex attractions: David and Jonathan; Jesus and his disciples, especially John; Ruth and Naomi – there are many Biblical examples of committed same gender relationships that are perfectly holy, and celibate (note: I am not calling these homosexual relationships). Indeed, we are told in 2 Samuel 1:26 that David’s love for Jonathan was “greater than that of man to a woman.” The sin is the gay activity – if indeed, it is sin at all.

With this in mind, let’s now look at what Paul is saying in Romans 1 and 2, using the knowledge we have of the words Paul uses from the previous two sections of this study (read them here and here if you haven’t done so yet).

Paul isn’t saying what you think he’s saying

A quick reminder of the context of the church in Rome: There was a massive divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the city. This had been exacerbated when Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome. They were only allowed to return just a few years before Paul writes this letter. Not wanting a rift to develop and implode in Rome as it had done in Antioch, Paul writes this letter with the express purpose of bringing Jew and Gentile Christians together. He starts doing this in a surprising way: he confronts the Jewish Christians, who considered themselves superior and holier to the Gentiles, with their prejudice and pushes them to some humility in their interactions with the Gentile Christians in Rome.

Paul is not going to ask anyone to condone sinful behaviour in ourselves or others (“Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6:1-2 NIV). But he is going to tell them to stop judging each other on the basis of customs, social norms and cultural preferences, and is going to get them to confront their prejudices about who is blessed by God and who is not (Read Romans 14, especially: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters…. You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?… 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. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself.” Romans 14:1, 10, 13-14 NIV).

In Romans 1, then, Paul paints a picture of the Jewish view of the Gentiles in Rome, showing what Jews would have considered to be a moral slide that starts with ignoring God, goes on to cultural practices that Jews find unacceptable, spiralling downward to sinful behaviours and ultimately to complete moral bankruptcy and loss of humanity. Paul is going to show the Jewish readers that they are on a similar perceived downward spiral, and will eventually say that “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (These are two separate things, by the way – sinning, and falling short of God’s glory.)

Jews and Gentiles (but mainly the Jews)

Paul starts Romans 1 in verse 5 by reminding the Roman church that he was called to be the apostle specifically focused on taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. But in verse 14, he nevertheless makes it clear that he is equally obligated to both Jew and Gentile (“Greek and non-Greek”), and even goes so far as to suggest that the Gospel is for the “Jews first”. He probably meant this as a historical reality only, but there is, of course, another inference to be made: that the Jews are favoured more than Gentiles – they are “first” in God’s eyes. Most Jews believed this.

The set up has begun. You can imagine how some of the more judgemental Jews in the Roman church might have felt at this point as this letter was read to them: pretty self-satisfied. Paul is primarily addressing the Jewish Christians in Rome at this point, and he’s about to “play to the crowd”.

The Root Cause of All Problems

In verse 18, Paul talks about the sin that the Bible consistently points to as the root of all other wickedness: idolatry. This is the primary issue that Jews had with all other religions. They were the only monotheistic religion at the the time, and the worship of multiple gods, especially via idol worship and the temple cults, was something that gave Jews a strong sense of distinctiveness. As Jews converted to Christianity, they (somewhat reasonably) retained this sense of religious superiority to their Christian brothers and sisters who were converting from other religions characterised by cultic practices.

Remember that Paul was writing from Corinth to Rome – these were two key centres of Roman cultic worship. Both cities had numerous temples, and were especially famed for the sensuality of the worship associated with these temples. Any reference to the Roman temples in these two cities especially would immediately have called to mind idol worship, temple prostitution, pederasty and feasting on animals sacrificed in the temples.

This is exactly what Paul wants to evoke. In verses 18-20, he sets up a picture of the Gentiles in Rome: they have no excuse for wickedness, because they should be able to see evidence of an ethical God in the created world. But people choose not to acknowledge this God, actively suppressing the truth that is evident to them in creation. The primary indication of this “foolishness” (verse 21) is their idol worship and cultic sexuality. Needing something to worship, they make little wooden statues and bow down to these. So God “gives them over” to these practices, including everything that accompanies temple worship in Rome and Corinth in particular – God allows them to do what they want to do.

Note that verses 24 and 25 are clearly in the context of temple cultic practices, and not referencing general sexual immorality that may have been evident in society in general. Paul’s initial concern is to paint a picture of the temple cults in Rome.

Note the complete consistency we have seen throughout the Scriptures as we’ve looked at the verses that talk against homosexuality. They all reference temple prostitution, and/or abusive sexual activity. This flows from a desire to replace the worship of the true God with worship of inferior and replica idols, and practices that deliberately went against God’s created design for worship of Himself. This was an important distinguishing feature of Jewish identity – that they were not to be like other nations, and were not to engage in the cultic practices of other nations. This passage in Romans is no exception.

A Progression – starting with excess and socially unacceptable actions

Having established the context of cultic temple practices, Paul goes on to catalogue a progression of concerns that Jews would have had about the Gentiles in Rome and Corinth. Given the prominence of the temples in these cities, and the general state of Gentile spirituality, this progression would make complete sense to the readers of the letter. Especially to Jewish Christians, who would have nodded in agreement as the letter was read to them.

In verse 26, Paul starts his argument by saying again that God “gave them over”. He will use this same phrase again in verse 28. This is a clear literary marker of three distinct sections to his argument. In this middle section, Paul shifts his language to refer to activities that are considered socially unacceptable – God gave them over to “shameful desires”. We looked at this in detail in the previous part of this series (if you haven’t read the updated version of that post, please do so now). There can be no doubt that Paul has stopped talking about “wickedness” (verse 24) and idolatry and is now talking about activities that were considered unclean, socially unacceptable and even possibly disgusting, particularly to the Jews.

We cannot make Paul and the Bible say something he never actually said. Paul does not call same-gender sexual activity sin – he calls it ritual impurity (on the basis of Jewish culture) and socially unacceptable. Paul’s point in verses 26 and 27 is that the Roman Gentiles, including possibly some of the Christian converts, were engaged in sexual activity that the Jews found culturally unacceptable or “shameful” and “unnatural” (it might be better to translate this “unusual” in this context). He is not, though, condemning these forms of sexual activity.

As we saw previously, the parallel that Paul makes with Leviticus is clearly deliberate. There were words, both Hebrew and Greek, that meant “ethically wrong” and “sinful”. Those words could have been used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 but, as we have seen, they were not used. Similarly, here in Romans, Paul also had words that meant “ethically wrong,” and he could have used them to refer to same-gender sexual activity. But he did not.

Lack of Control and Excessive Sexuality

So, is Paul comfortable with this “unnatural” sex taking place, or is he condemning it? Paul was a Jew, and would have found homosexual sex difficult to accept, but it’s important to notice his careful choice of words – he deliberately does not call it “sinful”, “wicked” or “wrong”. What Paul is condemning is those who have taken what might just have been socially unacceptable and have pushed the boundaries even further to excess. As we saw previously – and what is obvious even in the plain reading of modern translations – is that the people Paul refers to are “consumed” and “inflamed” with “lust”. These are not people who are engaged in sexual activity within loving and consensual relationships, nor people with modesty and decorum.

Matthew Vines, in God and the Gay Christian, shows clear evidence that Paul’s issue is with excessive sexual desire, which overflowed into licentious behaviour, and seeking after homosexual sexual encounters that included pederasty and master-slave sex. The majority of men who indulged in these practices also engaged in heterosexual sexual activity with their wives. As we’ve already seen, especially from the writings of Philo, Plato, and Dio Chyrysostom, same-sex relations were not considered objectionable because partners were the same gender, but where they were considered improper it was because they stemmed from hedonistic self-indulgence.

The flow of this passage, and the progression I am highlighting is that Paul clearly believes that idolatry is the main sin, and that excessive sexuality is as a result of this. In other words, it is not homosexual desires that lead to sin, but rather sin – and replacing God with our own man-made idols – that leads to a lack of control in sexual expression.

It’s especially interesting, in this regard, to note John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans 1, which states: “[Paul] does not say that they were enamoured of one another but that they were consumed by lust for one another! You see that the whole of desire comes from an excess which cannot be contained itself within proper limits.” Similarly, the fifth century Christian bishop, Julian of Eclanum, interpreted Romans 1 as a contrast of those who make “right use” of sexual desire with those who “indulge in the excess of it”, going on to conclude that “he who observes moderation in natural [desire] uses a good thing well; but he who does not observe moderation abuses a good thing.”

Many people who hold a traditional view that is opposed to homosexuality argue that homosexuals are characterised by lust and excess. They point to “gay pride” marches for example, or the often overly-camp caricatures of gay people in movies, TV and popular culture. If Paul was writing a letter to our churches today, he may very well cite these examples too. As Christians, we are called to self-control, restraint and modesty. But it is simply not true that these issues are characteristic of all homosexuals. Demonstrably, most LGBT people live quiet, unassuming lives, with relationships characterised by as much fidelity and love as you can expect to find amongst heterosexuals.

In fact, if Paul was as concerned about homosexuality as many modern day opponents say he was, then actually, verses 26 and 27 of Romans 1 don’t go nearly far enough. The level of homosexual activity in both Corinth and Rome was astounding. Almost every adult male citizen had male slaves who were used for sex, temple rituals included all forms of sexual activity but predominantly pederasty, and male homosexual marriage was a feature, of Rome at least. If Paul really believed what modern opponents of homosexuality say he believed: that homosexuality destroys a sacrament God has instituted, that it is a root cause of multiple societal and moral ills, that it will bring God’s wrath and judgement upon us and that it is a particularly evil sin; then Paul would surely have said more than he does about it in these two verses.

Instead, he uses the language of social norms and traditions, and identifies the problem as being excess and lust. His point is that one of the signs of a move away from devotion to God is excessive and out of control sexuality, and particularly sexuality that is experimental, and that crosses the line of social acceptability and personal self control. Same-gender sexual acts themselves are not sinful – it’s only when taken to excess that they become such.

We cannot impose our own morality onto Paul’s words. That’s actually going to be the very point Paul makes in Romans 2. But before we get to that, he has more to say on this progression to sin.

The Progression Continues – A decline to wickedness and moral bankruptcy

In Romans 1:28, Paul again says that God “gave them over”, but this time God gives them over to “a depraved mind” (NIV). Note that these sections are meant to flow, with each starting with a “therefore” or “because of this” (NIV). Paul started by talking about idolatry, and then specifically references Leviticus and the temple cultic acts that were considered abominations (cultural taboos, as we have seen previously), and now proceeds with a descent into “wickedness”. We cannot pluck verses 26 and 27 out of this context, and use them to oppose homosexuality – they form part of a unit of thought for Paul. Idolatry is the key problem. This can lead to, and incorporate, sexual activity that is considered unacceptable by some, and definitely is problematic if taken to excess or if included in cultic temple practices. And it also leads to sinful behaviours.

In verses 29-30, Paul talks again about wickedness, using the language of sin and evil, as we have seen previously. He begins an interesting list of sins: “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.”

This list does not seem to follow any recognisable pattern of vice lists, from either the Old Testament or classical literature. There isn’t a progression of sins within the list, neither are there any natural groupings of these sins. Murder and God-hating are alongside gossip, arrogance and disobeying parents. Paul is casting a broad net here. His point is not that all sinners commit each one of these sins, but rather that these are the types of actions characteristic of sinful people.

Actually, what they are is the types of sins that Jewish Christians particularly identified in Gentile culture as being characteristic of that culture. We’ll see in a moment one particularly important parallel source in the book of Wisdom, but it is highly likely that Paul is listing the most common complaints that Jewish Christians had of the Gentiles, and possibly a list of sins that the self-righteous Jewish converts were using to call for the exclusion of Gentile Christians from the church. We must not underestimate, nor can we overstate, the deep divide that existed between Jewish and Gentile converts in the early years of the church.

Paul is doing a good job here of vilifying the Gentiles (or so it seems). And he’s not finished. Once evil actions become characteristic, one’s moral sense becomes distorted. In verse 31, Paul shifts from listing actions to talking about character: “they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” (NIV) And finally, in verse 32, worst of all, “they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (NIV) This is the lowest form of depravity. These are particularly powerful indictments, and taken at face value, are obvious overstatements. This adds to the view that Paul is giving us a list of perceived faults that the Jews saw in the Gentiles, and using hyperbole for effect at this point.

In all of these descriptions, note that Paul continues to use “they” as the descriptor. This is vitally important for our understanding of how to interpret these verses. If you know anything about the letter to the Romans, you will know that Paul’s message is that “we have all sinned”. He is going to spend most of chapters 3 through 6 talking about how universal and pervasive sin is. So, why would he be talking about “they” in chapter 1, as if he and we are not included in this group of sinful people?

The answer is simple: we cannot stop reading there.

The Purpose of Romans 1 is Romans 2

The readers of this letter to the Roman Christians would have had quite different responses at this point. The Jewish Christians would have been feeling quite self-righteous. The Gentile Christians, who were clearly the targets of the “they” in chapter 1 would have been squirming.

But Paul turns the tables on his readers, especially the Jews. In Romans 2:1 he says, “You, therefore…”. As we saw previously of this study, this marks a distinct shift in the tone of the letter. Paul stops talking about “them” and “they” and starts talking about “you”. Since he is going to make a big deal of the fact that we are all sinners, we must take this shift in tone seriously. This only makes sense if we understand that he is talking primarily to the Jewish Christians. He has used the language they were using to vilify the Gentiles, but says to them, “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.”

Paul’s point – and he is going to go on and on about this for another few chapters yet – is that the Jewish converts in the early church needed to be careful about their attitudes. They did have an advantage because of their background, in that they had a knowledge of God and of His requirements for holy living. But that advantage actually counted for little – or could even be counted against them – if they did not realise that their status in the new Covenant was due entirely to God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice, and not to their actions or religious history.

The Gentiles could be held culpable for both culturally unacceptable activities and for sinful actions based on what could be considered “obvious” or commonly accepted morality (today we have a theological word for this: “general revelation”). The Jews could be held similarly responsible for the ways in which they ignored and went against the 613 Talmudic laws of the Old Testament, plus the many, many more found in Rabbinic traditions.

This is what Paul means by “you do the same things”. The Jews also had culturally unacceptable practices that the Gentiles found repulsive, including circumcision, various festivals and dietary laws. Similarly, on the basis of their laws, they were sinning against God in many ways.

Simply stated, Paul says this:

    You Jews think that the Gentiles have some pretty disgusting social practices, including homosexual sexual activity, and you think yourself better than them because their idolatrous past has led many of them to battle with some pretty awful sins – and even though they didn’t have God’s law written down for them they should have known better. But you Jewish Christians are no better. Consider how some of your practices – especially circumcision – look to the Gentiles. And if you don’t actually obey God’s law, there was no real value in having it in the first place. In fact, you’re probably even worse off than the Gentiles. So, therefore, all of you, listen: you’ve all sinned. And you all need God. And the great news is that there is only one way to get to God, and that’s by faith in Jesus, who died to save us all. Your cultural heritage neither helps nor hinders you in approaching God by faith through Jesus. Good news indeed.

He is going to reiterate these points through this letter. For example, in Romans 6:19, he says, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.” Here again, he talks about this progression, which includes things that were culturally inappropriate and also ever-increasing sinfulness.

We cannot extract Romans 1:26-27 from this context and make it say something that Paul never intended to say. These two verses do not restrict loving, covenant-based homosexual relationships.

I encourage you to pause now, and read the whole letter to the Romans right now with this filter in place. It really does make the most sense of the letter to read it this way.

How Then Do We Interpret Romans 1:26-27?

With all of this information (and I am sorry if it might feel a little overwhelming – overturning 2,000 years of traditional belief is not easy), how then are we supposed to understand and interpret the verses that reference homosexuality in Romans 1?

  • The first answer to this is the point we’ve just made, but it bears repeating: you cannot isolate Romans 1:26-27 from the context of the chapter or the whole book. The progression is clear: idolatry – the replacing of the worship of the true God with worship of human and natural things – was, and is, a real problem for humanity. This leads to all forms of behaviour that are problematic, from the worship of things other than God, to socially unacceptable excesses to sin and wicked activity and finally to morally bankrupt souls.

  • It’s clear that the references to homosexuality in this progression are not applicable to Christ-followers, who are attempting to live in loving and faithful relationships.

  • It is equally clear that Paul’s concern around the sexual issues mentioned in Romans 1:26-27 have to do with people “abandoning” a previous sexuality, and moving into the realms of sexual experimentation and deviancy. This too would not be applicable to those people born gay, and who identify as gay.

  • Similarly, Paul is clear that these behaviours that Jews felt were socially unacceptable only become sinful when they are played out as lust-filled, excessive, out-of-control sexual expressions. Again, this would be not be an issue for a committed, faithful, modest gay couple.

  • Finally, we need to see the overall flow of Paul’s argument. When we do so, it is clear that Romans 1 is set up as a foil for the Jewish Christians in Rome. The best proof of this is found in a parallel reading in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon.

An Important Parallel: The Wisdom of Solomon

To prove that this is the best reading of Romans, let’s look at an important document of the early church, the Book of Wisdom. This book is part of the Aprocrypha, which, although not considered Biblical by Protestants has been included as an additional section in printed Bibles throughout church history (it was only in the past 50 years that some Bible printings began to exclude it). These books do not hold the same level of inspiration and authority as the rest of the Bible, but they are still important theological documents. They were written around the same time as the New Testament books were written, and give us insights into the Jewish mindset of the time.

“The Wisdom of Solomon” (also know as the Book of Wisdom or just Wisdom) has an interesting section in chapters 13 through 15, where the author builds a case against the “they” of the idolatrous nations surrounding Israel:

    “Yes, naturally stupid are all who are unaware of God, and who, from good things seen, have not been able to discover Him – who-is, or, by studying the works, have not recognized the Artificer… And if they have been impressed by their power and energy, let them deduce from these how much mightier is he that has formed them, since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author. …

    “But even so, they have no excuse: if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge to be able to investigate the world, how have they been so slow to find its Master?

    “But wretched are they, with their hopes set on dead things, who have given the title of gods to human artifacts, gold or silver, skilfully worked, figures of animals, or useless stone, carved by some hand long ago.

    “…The idea of making idols was the origin of fornication, their discovery corrupted life…

    “With their child-murdering rites, their occult mysteries, or their frenzied orgies with outlandish customs, they no longer retain any purity in their lives or their marriages, one treacherously murdering another or wronging him by adultery. Everywhere a welter of blood and murder, theft and fraud, corruption, treachery, riot, perjury, disturbance of decent people, forgetfulness of favours, pollution of souls, sins against nature, disorder in marriage, adultery and debauchery. For the worship of idols with no name is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil.”

At this point in Wisdom, the author switches to contrast the “we”/”you” of the Israelites:

    “But you, our God, are kind and true, slow to anger, governing the universe with mercy. Even if we sin, we are yours, since we acknowledge your power, but we will not sin, knowing we count as yours.

    “To know you is indeed the perfect virtue, and to know your power is the root of immortality. We have not been duped by inventions of misapplied human skill, or by the sterile work of painters, by figures daubed with assorted colors, the sight of which sets fools yearning and hankering for the lifeless form of an unbreathing image.

    “Lovers of evil and worthy of such hopes are those who make them, those who want them and those who worship them.”

The progression in this passage is very similar to that of Romans 1, and the charges against the Gentiles identical:

  • They are stupid to not recognise God from His creation
  • They have no excuse since God’s existence is obvious from creation
  • They instead begin making idols
  • These idols are the origin of fornication, and an abuse of sexuality including orgies, temple sex rites and abandoning marriages
  • which lead to all kinds of wickedness
  • It is emphasized again: the worship of idols is the beginning and cause of all their evil.
  • We, the people of Israel, are not like them.
  • We know God.
  • Because we acknowledge God, we don’t sin.
  • Because we know God, we are not tricked by idol-makers.
  • They are all lovers of evil, unlike us.

The first half of this is very much like Romans 1, with a strikingly similar list of indictments against the Gentiles. The second half, though, is where Paul’s letter changes. It is clear that Paul is using Wisdom’s argument – one that was well-known to the Jews and well-used by them in Rome – in Romans 1. But then he completely subverts it in Romans 2.

As John Elliott Lein explains in “Gay Marriage and the Bible“:

    “He appears to initially accept the premise that idolatry is the root of all evil, and that the unstained (recent generations of) Jews are therefore more naturally righteous than idol-tainted Greeks. Yet when Paul switches to speaking to Israel in Romans 2:1, he tips his hand. This is a ridiculous argument, he says. If worshipping physical idols, especially in sexual rituals, is the sole origin of sin, then why do the Jews also sin? No, he says, there is nothing different between the Jews and Gentiles. They are equal before God!”

This passage in Wisdom shows us clearly the prevailing attitude of the Jews at the time, and makes sense of Paul’s setup and take down of this mindset in Romans 1 and 2. You cannot extract Romans 1:26-27 from this context and apply it to all homosexuals everywhere. It just does not work that way.

As David W. Shelton, in “Christianity & Homosexuality” points out:

    “Chapter 1 reads like a list of “wherefores” in a presidential or mayoral proclamation. Chapter 2 is the proclamation itself. In verses 1 through 4, Paul finally makes his point. Every single verse in Romans 1 leads up to this declaration in the first paragraph of chapter 2. Here, Paul echoes Jesus’ words on judgment from Matthew 7. Paul completely turns this whole idolater-bashing passage on its heels and directs it toward the Christians in Rome: “because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Does he know today’s church or what?

    “So, in a nutshell, Paul is addressing a few issues. One, he’s blasting the Roman Christians who pass judgment on others for doing the very things they do themselves. Two, he’s establishing the platform to discuss the riches of God’s kindness and His grace.

    “The reality is that none of the verses in Romans 1 or 2 can exist in a vacuum, and must be taken with the whole. Most people who are struggling with their sexual orientation take Romans 1:26-28 by themselves (as they’re often told to do) and look for ways to try to fix themselves. But as Scripture says, there is clearly a more excellent way. Clearly, this passage is talking about hypocritical behavior (as Jesus often did), not homosexuals.”

If you read through the letter to the church in Rome earlier as I requested, you would have seen this theme deeply embedded from beginning to end in the book. Paul’s concern is precisely to stop Christians from judging and excluding fellow believers on the basis of cultural preferences and social practices. He is not asking us to turn a blind eye to sin, but to be fairly careful about what we think is sinful when actually it is not.

In Romans 12, he will then turn to the practical implications of all this:

    “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” (Romans 12:1-4, NIV)

To any reader who has just read that and said, “But, there – you see – we need to be holy and our bodies are to be living sacrifices, and homosexuals just don’t do that. Gay sex is disgusting and cannot be holy”, well, I believe you have failed to learn the lesson of the letter to the Romans. The “pattern of this world” that Paul warns us to be careful of is that we judge others based on our own prejudices and practices. The people Paul is addressing in Romans 12 are not “the vile homosexual offenders” of Romans 1, but rather you – you who would judge homosexuals who are in loving, covenant relationships. This is made very clear when Paul gives the antidote: it’s not about changing some vile behaviour, but rather Romans 12 instructs: “renew your minds”. And God’s will for you is that you “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” – it is you and your judgemental mind that is the problem!

Read more in Romans 14:

    “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

    “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God….

    “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?…

    “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. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. …

    “Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.” (Romans 14:1-6, 10, 13-14, 16-18).

This list in Romans 14 is not comprehensive. In fact, it is the list of issues that the Gentiles had with the Jews, rather than the list of issues the Jews had with the Gentiles. But Paul’s message here is clear. He is not just talking about food and festivals. He is talking about all cultural customs, all socially accepted norms, traditions and other issues that are not issues for God but are big issues for us. Stop judging each other! Stop playing God!

The evidence has now piled up high. Those who do not accept homosexuals are judging them on issues of personal preference and cultural heritage. And they should stop!

Romans 15:7: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (NIV)

Paul is Not Against Homosexuals

As we saw at the beginning of the section of our study, the only possible sin that gay people might be committing is actual same-gender sexual activity, and all Paul condemns in this passage is sexual activity that is lust-filled, excessive and immodest. Paul is not talking about sex within the confines of a loving, covenantal homosexual relationship.

There is still one significant objection, and this links in with the only time Jesus Himself commented on the form of marriage. This objection appears to establish marriage as between one man and one woman as a creation ordinance, or something built into the design of the natural world. We will deal with this objection shortly.

For now, though, I hope you will see that we have raised serious questions about the traditional interpretation of Romans 1:18-32. And even if you’re not yet convinced, I hope you’re not as confident now as you have been that the Apostle Paul would be opposed to lifelong, monogamous, faithful, covenantal same sex relationships if he was with us today.

Previous article in this series: Part 11: Shameful Acts and Going Against Nature

Next article in this series: Other Interpretations of Romans 1

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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