We have spent a lot of time in the book of Romans in this study. For many Christians, Romans 1 is the key passage against same gender sexual activity, so we need to cover it thoroughly. In the last three posts, I believe I have clearly shown that we misinterpret Romans if we believe that we can use it today to argue against same sex marriages. A summary of the key points is:
- Paul is not giving instructions about loving, same gender sexual partners – he is talking about abusive and excessive sexuality, including and specifically temple and cultic prostitution.
- Paul is not giving general instructions about what is and is not appropriate sexual activity. He is addressing Jewish cultural preferences which stated that any sexual activity that was not capable of producing children was considered shameful and unnatural. Paul tells the Jews to change their attitudes.
- Paul is not really concerned about sexual issues in Romans 1 – his main concern, which is evidenced by the flow of the whole letter, is the divide between Jews and Gentiles in Rome. The sins listed in Romans 1 are used to show that “all have sinned”. But Paul also points out that some things people think are sinful are just cultural preferences. The issue of homosexuality is similar to that of circumcision for Paul: a cultural preference that should not be used to judge fellow Christians.
- Romans 1 cannot be understood alone – Romans 2 and the rest of the letter make it clear that Paul is using homosexuality as a set up for the Jewish readers, and will go on to show them the error of their thinking. Homosexuality is not a sin. The Jewish disgust for homosexuality was a cultural preference, as was the Gentile disgust of circumcision and Jewish eating issues. Paul tells both Jewish and Gentile Christians to stop judging each other.
If you haven’t read the detailed explanations behind those highly summarised points yet, please follow the links above.
In this last section on Romans 1, I want to shift focus and look at a few additional ways in which some revisionist interpreters have approached Paul’s writings. There are varying degrees of revisionists. Some simply abandon the Bible and say it’s no longer relevant. But others believe that we can retain our belief that the Bible is God’s Word and remains relevant, while still at the same time acknowledging that we need to change (revise) our understanding of certain parts of it. We’ve seen many examples of this over the course of this study already, so there should be no conceptual problem with looking at alternative interpretations and evaluating each on its merits.
I believe there are many Christians who don’t have an issue in their hearts with gay marriage but firmly desire to remain Biblical. They will not accept gay marriage if it means giving up on the Bible or ignoring parts of it. I hope I’ve shown so far in this study that we don’t need to do that.
But I want to go slightly further now. There are other ways to approach Biblical interpretation that have been well attested throughout church history, and similarly cast huge doubt on the traditional interpretation of the verses we’ve studied thus far. With regard to Romans 1, these approaches argue that when Paul wrote Romans he was against same sex marriage, but that if Paul were to visit us today he would change that view.
Here are a few versions of this approach for your consideration:
1. Paul was a man of his times
The most obvious revisionist interpretation is that Paul was a product of a patriarchal, slave owning, ancient culture. His words are still relevant to us today, but need to be filtered through a cultural and historical lens, specifically taking into account not just what the Bible says, but the historical and cultural contexts in which the various books were written, and especially taking a total canonical view of the development of theological views over time.
For example, Paul never speaks out against slavery, and even is comfortable using slavery as an analogy for our relationship with God. He gives instructions to slaves and masters. If Paul were alive during the mid 1800s when the issue of slavery was being hotly debated, would he have stood with the slave owners or the abolitionists? Each side claimed a Biblical mandate for their view at the time, but history shows that the abolitionists had the stronger argument. In fact, you’d battle to find a Christian today who believes that slavery is a good thing and mandated by Scripture. For some people, a changed view of the Bible caused them to fight to change a centuries-old cultural belief about slavery, and for others it took a changed society to get them to see the Bible differently.
Now, we don’t say that the Bible was wrong. We simply interpret the verses about slavery differently, in the light of modern societal norms. In fact, we can show that the approach the Bible takes to slavery (even in the Old Testament) was quite progressive in relation to the surrounding cultures. Our approach today is to see the progression towards emancipation, and embrace this. We adapt some of the verses about slavery and make them apply to boss-employee relationships. But some references to slavery in the Bible we simply ignore, understanding that they reflect a cultural, historical and geographical experience that is no longer relevant to us. We can learn principles that we can apply today, but we do not apply the Bible literally or directly on this issue.
The role of women in society and the church is another example – and we’re going to come back to this one in a lot more depth a bit later in our study, when we begin to develop a positive theology and moral framework for marriage.
Some less controversial issues relate to what men and women wear, and how they do their hair. I grew up as the grandson of a Brethren group leader, who preached and believed that women should have long hair, cover their heads while in church, and be stay-at-home mothers. These views claim to take Paul’s teachings about women literally. Those churches that do not preach these things have one way or another made a cultural shift from Paul’s teaching to our modern world.
If we can choose to not take Paul literally on some of these issues, the argument goes, then we should be able to do it for the issue of homosexuality. In order to do this, we need to show that such a shift does not violate an eternal principle, but is purely a cultural issue. We saw in an earlier part of this study that when Paul talks about something that is “beyond nature” in Romans 1, he uses the same phrase in 1 Cor. 11:14 to refer to the length of men’s hair, making it clear that he understands that this is a cultural (and therefore non-eternal) issue.
We therefore continue to apply the principles of Paul’s teachings on same sex relationships today without taking them literally. On this issue of homosexuality, we therefore say that sexual activity should be reserved for marriage, that Christians are not meant to be sexually exploitative or to flaunt their sexuality rather aiming for modesty and decorum, and that loving covenant is to be the basis for marriage, which is intended to be consensual, monogamous, lifelong and exclusive. But it can be between any two people, regardless of their gender or sexual preferences.
The obvious danger of this approach is that once you begin to say that some of Paul’s teachings are cultural and others are eternal, you have to be very careful about how you draw the line between those two things. Otherwise the danger is that we can justify any morality that is culturally acceptable, and that we see God’s law as merely a mirror of our culture. We’ll come back to this thought later in this study, as I believe we can construct a compelling, positive morality of marriage that includes same sex couples. But we must do so without descending to theological relativism.
We’ve seen previously in this study that Paul often intertwines his theology with cultural norms. An example comes from 1 Tim 2:8, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer”.
The emphasis here is not on men, nor is it on the raising of hands. It is on the holiness of the person who prays, and on the command to pray regularly. The raising of hands was a cultural issue, and therefore could even be considered a figure of speech in this instance. Even though it is written in the form of a command, we are not required to raise our hands when we pray. It is clearly not just a male issue, either, even thought Paul is specifically directing this command to males (he turns to women in the next verse).
Similarly, we don’t have to greet other Christians by kissing them. Unless you’re French, then go for it. Paul was a man of his times, and we sometimes have to filter what he says through a cultural lense. We do this all the time. Maybe we need to apply those lenses to Romans 1 as well.
2. Paul is concerned about idolatry
A second approach to understanding Romans 1 emphasizes even more strongly than I did previously in this study, that Paul’s primary concern in his letters that talk about homosexuality is idolatry and temple prostitution. For people who emphasize this, the argument is that the issue of same sex relationships is of minor importance in the various passages we’ve looked at so far, and that the focus is on the worship of false gods and activities related to pagan temples that some Christians were still involved in. This is actually equally true of the Old Testament references.
The implication of this is that Paul did not condemn homosexuality, and nor would he today. Paul is condemning idolatry.
Many English translations of the Bible translate the last phrase of Romans 1:27 as “due penalty of their error.” What is the error? This view suggests that the ‘error’ here was not homosexuality, rather it was that former pagans who converted to Christianity continued to engage in idol worship, even possibly leaving their Christian faith in order to do so. The idol worship they engaged in at the pagan temples were characterised by sexual orgies, sexual behaviour against their nature, wickedness, greed, and other crimes that Paul lists in Romans 1. This view makes some sense of why Paul might list gossip and disobeying parents alongside murder – he had particular cultic rituals in mind. The intent of Romans 1, therefore, is to show that idolatry leads to complete degeneration of behaviour, and eventually to influencing others to do the same. The reference to what was (for Paul’s readers at least) unnatural same sex activity seems almost incidental to the argument (he could have listed any behaviours related to the pagan temples, but the sexual ones were the most obvious to observers). It was merely one symptom of the results of pagan idolatry. And it is only problematic in so far as it is associated with pagan idolatry and cultic practices.
Arland J. Hultgren writes:
- “Paul is not speaking here of homosexual orientation. Instead, he is talking about the gentile world, a world of idolaters, who long ago rejected the worship of God and became a culture of abuse, in which power and conquest were established and displayed in sexual acts.”
Cybele, Rhea and the Earth Goddess
One particularly strong version of this approach has identified practices related to the worship of the goddess Cybele, one of the main goddesses in Rome at the time Paul wrote his letter to the church there. You can read some of the background in detail here (I’d recommend the read if this approach makes sense to you). Simply stated, many of Paul’s references in Romans 1, including the specific descriptions of the idols that were crafted and the list of vices in Romans 1, make much more sense when we link them to the worship associated with Cybele, the earth goddess, and to the idols that represented her. This goddess also has direct links back to the same cult that worshipped Molech, who was the focus of Moses’ prohibitions in Leviticus. It may be that like other letters (especially those to the church in Corinth), Paul had a very specific issue in mind, and was giving instructions that were specifically directed to the situation in Rome, rather than intending them to be more universally applicable. I personally wouldn’t go that far, but reading about Cybele certainly gives you a sense that Paul had a very specific picture of a very specific god in his head when he wrote Romans 1.
As Rick Brentlinger’s Gay Christian 101 puts it:
- “Ignoring Cybele’s influence and prominence in Phrygia, in Rome and throughout the Roman Empire and Paul’s experience of growing up around the goddess worship of Tarsus and winning pagan worshipers of Cybele to saving faith in Jesus Christ in her Phrygian stronghold, guarantees a wrong understanding of Romans every time.
“The idolatry Paul so carefully describes in Romans 1 is directly related to Paul’s life experience and what he knew to be happening in Rome when he wrote his epistle. The pagan sexual worship of the fertility goddess which was rampant in ancient Tarsus and Paul’s personal experience as a soul-winning street preaching missionary in ancient Phrygia ten years before he wrote Romans, impacted what he wrote in Romans 1. Historical context is important and knowing the ancient world in which the apostle Paul wrote Romans helps us interpret and exposit the text accurately. Cybele is inextricably linked to first century Rome and to Paul’s ministry as he labored to win her worshipers to saving faith in Jesus Christ.”
This approach stresses even more forcefully that Paul’s primary concern in Romans 1 is idolatry. References to homosexuality are merely illustrative and not applicable to today (unless they’re practiced as part of a cult).
As a small side point, it’s interesting that the traditional interpreters of Romans 1 wish us to read the verses that reference homosexual behaviour literally and as applicable to today without adaptation, but take Paul’s references to idolatry as metaphorical and analogous. If they were consistent, then only homosexuals who actually worship little wooden figurines would be a problem to God. This is what the text actually says. Instead, they claim that Paul says that sex is the idol that has become their god, whereas Paul actually refers to “images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). You can’t have it both ways: either Paul is being literal and direct, or he is not. Either all his words in Romans 1 apply directly today, or all of them should be open to interpretation and adaptation for the modern context – or so this argument goes.
Cause and Effect
A further extension of the issue of idolatry relates to what Paul actually says about the cause and effect of idolatry. This is an important consideration, as Jeremy Punt, a professor of theology, explains:
- “The traditional interpretation of Romans 1 as anti-homosexual text tends to interchange what Paul says about idolatry and homoerotic acts. Paul claims that rebellion against God is manifested, among others, in unnatural sexual liaisons, those threatening to destroy the hierarchical and patriarchal first century world. The claim cannot be reversed without doing an injustice to Paul and perverting his argument: cause (rebellion) and effect or result (homoerotic activities) cannot simply be interchanged, also not on the premise that since rebellion is a specific sin then that specific sin is as good as rebellion. In fact, good reasons exist why this would not constitute a valid exchange.
“Firstly, it confuses cause and effect, and creates the dangerous misunderstanding that if you address the consequences, that you then are in fact also addressing the cause as well. An important consideration against viewing Romans 1 as first and foremost proscribing homoeroticism is that the standard Jewish view on sin or transgression entailed that if it was not atoned for in ways prescribed in the Bible, it would be punished, whether in this world, by sickness, suffering, or death, or in the world to come (Sanders 1992:40-47). In Romans 1, however, homoeroticism is already the consequence of sin, the failure to acknowledge God as God. Secondly, it does an injustice to the real issue which the texts are addressing and distracts from Paul’s main point and the issue which he raised, namely rebellion against God. Thirdly, it creates the impression that a particular manifestation of the results of rebellion encapsulates the rebellion fully, which has over the centuries contributed to the fabrication of homophobia and to some extent, also contributed to growing negative view of sexuality in various forms of early Christianity. And, finally, it unnecessarily complicates the ability to address or rectify the situation – such redress obviously needs to start with the cause rather than the effect.” (emphasis in the original)
It is really difficult to imagine how you can interpret Romans 1 in any way that does not include a consideration of the context of idolatry. Since this has been the consistent theme of all the passages we’ve looked at so far in this study, this should be of no surprise to anyone approaching this topic with an open mind. Paul’s concern is about idolatry, and everything that flows from it. This does not include same sex relationships as we know them today.
This is an important consideration itself. So, let’s shift gears to consider what Paul may or may not have known about homosexuality.
3. Paul did not know about loving homosexual relationships or a homosexual orientation as we understand it today
A version of this argument has been dealt with earlier in this study, arguing that Paul is concerned only with abusive and excessive sexual relationships.
The argument also says that Paul was condemning homosexuality – specifically same gender sexual activity – but was doing so on the basis of incomplete and incorrect scientific knowledge. Where this happens in Scripture on other issues, we ignore the Bible or explain it away. For example, the Bible says the earth is held up on four pillars with a mantle stretched above it on which the stars were placed. We now know that this is incorrect, and we treat these passages as either poetic or simply pre-scientific and therefore not to be understood literally today.
An example closer to our issue might be Biblical instructions about people who are disabled. While the Bible tells us to be kind to blind people in a few places, there are some strange instructions about who can be a priest in Leviticus 21:16-23:
- “The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.'” (NIV)
Would we apply this verse today? I truly hope not. Another example is that with modern farming techniques available, we no longer go back to Biblical instructions on farming, such as leaving land fallow or crop rotation. We recognise that the Biblical information might have been valuable at the time, but it is now only of historical value to us. We actually take this approach with many issues, including instructions to fathers about extracting a good bride price for their daughters, the treatment of captive I issues of government structure, family structure, the role of women, inheritance laws, the levirate marriage and many other issues.
We’re not saying the Bible was wrong. We simply recognise that it is an historic document as well as a theological one. It was written at specific times in history, and has context because of this. We do not simply abandon these historical documents, however. We look at them in the light of the culture they were written in to identify clues as to how we might apply them today. A good example is slavery. We see the Biblical people treating slaves much better than the surrounding nations. As Christians, we are meant to be world leaders in our fair and honest treatment of our employees today – erring on the side of compassion and generosity in all we do for our employees. We learn this by looking at the principles applied to slave ownership in the Bible, while ignoring the fact that slave ownership was condoned and practiced in the Bible.
Another example related to our topic is polygamy. The Bible is not against polygamy. There are even commands about how to treat multiple wives, and of course, many examples of polygamous marriages. But there is a theological development over the thousand or so years recorded in the Bible that definitely moves in the direction of monogamy. The same can be said for the rights of women in general. I talked about this in more detail earlier in this study when I highlighted the interpretation approach that looks for a theological or redemptive arc through the Bible and through history. This is also referred to as taking a canonical approach to interpretation, where one considers the flow and development of an issue over time, through Scripture, and then looks for the extrapolation of that through church history to the current day. This is also known as systematic theology and is a vital science for any Christian to understand.
So, back to the topic of homosexuality.
Human sexuality researchers and others who have studied the nature of sexual orientation would disagree with an interpretation of Paul which says that Paul believes homosexuality is abnormal. Almost all of them would argue that sexual orientation is not a choice, just like the colour of your hair, whether you have freckles or not and whether you are right or left-handed. You don’t get to choose or change these things. If Paul believed that you could, then he was wrong.
This argument would say that if Paul knew what we know today he would not have been against same sex marriage. A strong point in favour of this argument is in the related passage in 1 Corinthians 11:14, where Paul says that it is “against nature” for men to have long hair. Notice that in verse 16, he explicitly states that this is a cultural practice amongst the churches of the day. We saw previously that for Paul, being against nature, is not an issue of eternal teaching but rather an issue of cultural normality. And this both changes over time and develops with increased understanding of the world God created for us.
A Natural Kind / The Standard Argument
An extension of this approach to interpreting Romans 1 notes in this passage there is a description of the Gentiles as a “natural kind”. This is probably best explained by Eugene Rogers in “Sexuality and the Christian Body”, where he lays out what he calls “the standard argument.” The argument is standard because it has been used throughout history, at various times and places, to argue for the moral inferiority of a marginalized class of people. Labels and attributes are ascribed to these people, and they are seen as inherently inferior, by their very nature. It’s not their fault, and they can do nothing about it, but they are inferior. It is just their “natural kind”. Gender and race have been common targets throughout history. For example, in the Middle East today we see the standard argument applied to women. The logic goes that women are sexually promiscuous and, therefore, require a variety of social restraints to keep them in check. This is also why women are blamed for adultery, and even for rape. It is their “natural kind”.
The standard argument was also applied to blacks in the American South during slavery and segregation, and to South African blacks under apartheid. Sadly, this is still the case with some people today. In particular, for example, the black male is portrayed as having a voracious sexual appetite for white women. And blacks generally were considered to be more promiscuous than whites, “by nature”. They cannot help themselves.
In these cases, immorality generally, and sexual licentiousness in particular, get attributed to “natural kinds” (e.g., race, gender, culture). In the Old and New Testaments this same reasoning was consistently applied to the Gentiles, by the Jews. As a natural kind the Gentiles were considered to be naturally prone to immorality, licentiousness and sexual deviance. Consequently, they engage in acts that are “contrary to nature” (or, at least, natural acts as defined by the Jews). What is important to note in all this is that it’s not just that Gentiles do unnatural things, but rather that they are morally inferior by nature. It is clear in the context of the whole letter to the Romans that Paul has this philosophical construct in his mind, as he repeatedly encourages Jews and Gentiles to see each other as the same, in both sin and salvation.
This understanding helps us recover the moral shock of God’s excessive grace in Galatians 3.28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Richard Beck, a psychologist who blogs at ExperimentalTheology.com explains (a long extract, but I can’t do better than his explanation, which shares a marvellous truth):
- “We tend to read this passage [in Galatians 3:28] as a condemnation of slavery and as a call for egalitarian gender relations. No doubt that is a part of the story. But what Rogers argues is that what we are seeing in Gal. 3.28 is a fusion of natural kinds. More, we are seeing a fusion of the morally inferior with the morally superior. In the 1st Century, slaves, women and Gentiles were all considered to be morally inferior to the highest natural kind: The male Jew. For example, each group was characterized by the sexual perversions we’ve seen Paul describe in Romans 1.
“So what we are witnessing in Gal. 3:28 is something really quite shocking. Galatians 3:28 isn’t about slavery or gender relations. It’s about morality and holiness. More, it’s about God’s fusion in Jesus Christ of natural kinds, kinds that were believed to represent either holiness or depravity.
“And the shock of God’s actions goes even deeper. Later in Romans the phrase para phusin (“contrary to nature”) reemerges. Only this time it is applied not to homosexuality but to Gentiles! In Romans 11.24 Paul describes the action of God in grafting in the Gentiles to the tree of Israel (the vision of Galatians 3.28): ‘After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!’
“Does Paul know what he’s doing here? Is he intentionally pulling para phusin from Romans 1 to make a parallel to God’s grace in Jesus Christ? The Gentiles behave ‘unnaturally’ and God, in his grace, does something just as ‘unnatural,’ he overrides the category of natural moral kinds to create one body in Christ. Surely the readers of Romans would have heard the overtones between Romans 1 and Romans 11, that their biases about what is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ have been unnaturally reconfigured in the Kingdom of God.
“How does Paul’s argument apply to the case of modern day homosexuality? Rogers is clear that Paul is not offering his arguments in Romans to legitimize same-sex unions in the church. But what he does argue for is that Paul’s arguments in Romans 1, Romans 11 and Galatians 3 are broadly isomorphic with the arguments offered to exclude same-sex unions from the church. That the arguments being made by the Jews to exclude the Gentiles are the same arguments being used to exclude same-sex couples from the life of the church.
“In light of this, what we see in Paul is how the grace of God undermines the standard argument, an argument that there are kinds of people who are, by nature, morally inferior. And that these morally inferior natures cannot be ‘grafted into’ in the church.”
I’d go further than Rogers and say that Paul is in fact giving an argument for same sex marriage, and that if he were here today he would be clear about it. Paul’s view was shaped by culture – but at least he knew and acknowledged that. And he understood that the Gospel superseded and overturned those cultural boundaries and natural kinds.
Some people want to go further than this, though. They say…
4. Pederasty is the problem, not homosexuality.
Robin Scroggs, author of The New Testament & Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate and Nissinen are the primary source of this argument. He believes that Paul is clearly and specifically concerned with pederasty whenever he talks about homosexuality. We dealt with this when looking at the letters to the Corinthians and Timothy, where the references are very clear. But Scroggs believes this is what Romans 1 is about as well.
Pederasty was an acceptable form of same-sex encounters within the Greek world, and recorded widely as such in classical literature. A critical component of these encounters were that they were always between two people of unequal status which is fairly clear in the word pederasty which in Greek is paiderastia and is translated in English as “love for boys.” While these relationships were erotic in nature that doesn’t necessarily mean they were always sexual. What we do know about pederasty is that it was used as an acceptable, desirable and important tool for educating young men into the adult culture. The older man (perhaps by only a few years) was known as the erastes or active partner. His role in the relationship was to serve as the mentor to the youth who was considered the eromenos, the passive partner or the beloved. Plato provides the ideal Greek model of pederasty in the Symposium:
- “When an older lover and a young man come together and each obeys the principle appropriate to him – when the lover realizes that he is justified in doing anything for a loved one who grants him favours, and when the young man understands that he is justified in performing a service for a lover who can make him wise and virtuous – and when the lover is able to help the young man become wise and better, and the young man is eager to be taught and improved by his lover – then, and only then, when these two principles coincide absolutely, is it ever honourable for a young man to accept the lover.”
In many ways, pederasty was a rite of passage for the youth into the world of adulthood and the education provided by his mentor concerned all areas of his life from education into the cultural world, business world, even preparing him to be a sexual partner of his future wife. While the relationship would often continue after the youth’s marriage, any sexual activity was usually suspended at this point. The concern for many regarding pederasty was that the young man would go too far, enjoying the passive role too much and in doing so remain there rather than maturing into an active male. It’s important to note that in the midst of this practice men continued to have sexual relations with women. They were not exclusively same-sex in their attractions as would be the case for self-identified gays and lesbians in our culture.
Pederasty took a disturbing and unacceptable form by many in Rome. Rather than existing as a mentor-student relationship between two free persons, it manifested itself within Rome as a relationship between a free man and a slave. The motivation of the relationship was no longer centred in love and education but in the sexual pleasure of the active partner. The emperor Nero, known in literature for his homoerotic activities went so far as to marry one of his sex slaves. He castrated the slave, dressed him up as a woman and gave him a woman’s name.
Therefore, Scroggs says simply: “What the New Testament was against was the image of homosexuality as pederasty and primarily its more sordid and dehumanizing dimensions… The conclusion I have to draw seems inevitable: Biblical judgments against homosexuality are not relevant to today’s debate. They should no longer be used in denominational discussions about homosexuality, should in no way be used as a weapon to justify refusal of ordination, not because the Bible is not authoritative, but simply because it does not address the issues involved.”
5. Paul was wrong. Just plain wrong.
Many reject Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behaviour, particularly when Paul’s support for the oppression of women, and his acceptance of slavery as a normal social practice (eg. in Philemon 1:15 to 16) are considered. The argument is that Paul was speaking to a specific historical context, and that this context no longer exists. Paul didn’t allow women to speak in church, but we can. Paul was happy with slavery, but we shouldn’t be. Paul was comfortable working within an oppressive Roman government system, but we don’t have to accept the government we have over us today, and so on.
Another version of this argument comes from John Shelby Spong in Sins of Scripture:
- “This is the most overt and, I might add, the strangest condemnation of homosexual acts in the New testament. It is the only place in the Bible where there is a specific allusion to female homosexuality. It is a text frequently quoted to justify blatant homophobia. Yet its obvious meaning is simply ignored or dodged. Let me state that meaning boldly. Paul is asserting that homosexuality is the punishment given by God to those who fail to worship God properly! Homosexuality for Paul is not a sickness or the result of a choice one has freely made; it is a punishment for the sin of not attending ot the details and practices of proper worship. In other words, Paul is saying that God infects people with homosexual desire if they engage in improper worship or use improper images of God. It is both a startling and an ill-informed claim.
“Personally, I take a pretty simple approach to this text. First of all, I believe Romans 1:26-27 has to be understood in its context, as does all of Scripture. Paul’s larger theological argument in Romans 1-3 is that no one is without excuse when it comes to sin. We see this in Romans 3:9-10 where Paul begins to wrap things up: ‘What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one.” He then answers his question in Romans 3:28 which is the cornerstone verse of the Protestant Reformation: ‘For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.'”
People who approach Scripture this way don’t necessarily reject or throw out the Bible, but they are comfortable saying that certain parts of it should be ignored completely. They might feel that this passage in Romans 1 should be rejected as immoral and outside the will of God, much as other biblical passages are immoral by today’s ethical standards and should be ignored – including those passages that regulated human slavery, advocated genocide, promoted polygamy, required certain sins to be punished by the death penalty and specifically by stoning, required victims of rape to marry their rapist, allowed the torture of prisoners, and required the execution of non-virgin brides.
6. Heterosexuals engaging in homoerotic acts
A fifth approach to interpreting Paul’s words today inserts a word into the “against nature” phrase to make the meaning clearer. It argues that Paul’s concern is not that people are acting “against nature” but that these people are each acting “against their nature.” I’ve mentioned this briefly previously, but want to emphasize again here that some very learned scholars believe this is the best way to interpret Romans 1. These include Boswell, Stott and Wink.
They argue that Paul is criticising heterosexual people who engage in homosexual activities which are “against their nature” and his criticism is not directed against people who are homosexual by nature, and for whom homosexual relations and activities would be “natural”. By extension, if Paul had an understanding of homosexual orientation being something that someone is born with, he would equally have a problem with that person having heterosexual sex.
Research into homosexuality clearly shows that “true” or “natural” homosexuals are not those who have deliberately or consciously chosen to engage in sexual relations with members of the same sex over against their normal heterosexual drives. Rather, they have an innate orientation or propensity toward members of the same sex with the desire to engage in sexual acts with them. This means that we have to distinguish between two kinds of same gender sexual acts: those performed by “true” homosexuals, who have an innate orientation toward members of the same sex, and those performed by heterosexuals, who have an innate orientation toward members of the opposite sex. As this distinction has gradually gained wider acceptance, it has had an impact on the interpretation of Biblical passages on homosexuality. It first appeared in Bailey’s 1995 book. He uses the terms inversion and perversion to refer, respectively, to the same-sex orientation of true homosexuals and to the same-sex urges of the heterosexual in a licentious search for sexual experiences. This distinction is accepted by virtually all subsequent Christian authors who argue for the acceptance of “natural” homosexuals.
The argument is that the biblical condemnation of homosexual acts, especially in the three passages in the New Testament, deals with perversion, not with inversion. Some, such as James Nelson, maintain that the biblical authors believed that all people were “naturally” heterosexually orientated, and were simply ignorant of the fact that there were people with natural homosexual orientations (see arguments above). Thus, their condemnations of homosexual practice is a condemnation of homosexual activity committed by heterosexuals violating their heterosexual natures. Others, such as Scanzoni and Mollenkott, appeal to the linguistic terms used in the relevant Biblical passages to argue that certain very specific practices are in view. In Romans 1, where we find the most sweeping condemnation of homosexual practices, they argue that Paul’s description of these practices as “perversion” [planes], resulting from “shameful lusts” [pathe atimias], indicates that he has in mind homosexual acts committed by heterosexuals. Their conclusion is that we cannot apply the condemnations of Paul, and the other Biblical authors, to the practices of “natural” homosexuals.
John Boswell points out that this was actually the majority position of the early church fathers. For example:
- “St. John Chrysostom says that ‘St. Paul deprives the people he is discussing of any excuse, observing of their women that ‘they changed the natural use’. No one can claim, Paul points out, that she came to this because she was precluded from lawful intercourse or that because she was unable to satisfy her desire…. Only those possessing something can change it. Again he points the same thing out about men but in a different way, saying they ‘left the natural use of women.’ Likewise, he casts aside with these words every excuse, charging that they not only had legitimate enjoyment and abandoned it, going after another but that spurning the natural, they pursued the unnatural.’
What Chrysostom is getting at, and he expounds on it at great length, is the idea that St. Paul was not writing about gay people but about heterosexual people, probably married who abandoned the pleasure they were entitled to by virtue of their own natures for one to which they were not entitled. This is reflected in the canons imposing penances for homosexual activity, which through the 16th century were chiefly directed toward married persons. Little is said of single people.”
Throughout history, therefore, many people have read Romans 1 as a condemnation of people going against their own natures, and not a condemnation of people who are naturally homosexual.
7. A Controversial Reading: Paul is quoting someone else
The overall flow of the whole letter to the Romans indicates that Paul’s purpose in Romans 1 is not the list of sins, but could quite possibly be precisely the opposite. We need to look at the specific literary context to see if this helps with a more focused interpretation.
Calvin Porter, a Biblical scholar has done intensive study on this (see here) and firmly believes that Romans 1:18-32 is a quotation from a well-known Jewish discourse on Gentiles (although this is lost in history).
Modern equivalents might include the jokes about the French being “surrender monkeys”, or the British being stuck up snobs or the Americans being loud and brash. Or maybe closer to the bone, the belief that all Muslims are violent terrorists and would kill infidels in the name of their religion. These are almost universally understood and recognised negative caricatures (without necessarily being factually true). This is what Romans 1:18-32 is. An incorrect and unhelpful caricature that had the power to cause division and hurt in the early church.
In short, Romans 1:18-32 has all the hallmarks of a rhetorical passage representing the voice of Hellenistic Judaism, and Romans 2 is Paul’s voice arguing against that viewpoint.
Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with parralel rhetorical models from classical literature) is that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” that is seen throughout the passage). Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”
Jewish Christians had continued to accept the caricatures of the Gentiles portrayed in Romans 1, and thought of themselves as distinct from (and better than) their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters. Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles seeking to base himself in Rome and still hurting from the experience in Antioch, obviously found this mindset very problematic and sought to refute it. This leads up ultimately to his conclusion in Romans 14:13-14, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1:
- “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.”
Another scholar, Roy Bowen Ward, agrees: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”
This reading fits brilliantly into the overall flow of Romans. It makes sense of the message of the letter that in Romans 2:1 the shift to the direct address (the second person singular), along with the coordinating conjunction (Greek: ???), indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 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 wanted to shock the Christians in Rome – especially the Jewish Christians – in an attempt to shift their attitudes towards each other. He particularly needed to confront Jewish Christians with their own sense of self-righteousness. And in the first few chapters of his letter, he really lays it on thick. He does this so that neither Jew nor Gentile Christians would have any way to feel superior to the other. He does all of this so he can ultimately bring us back to Jesus in whom all things are reconciled and the covenant relationship between ourselves and God secured.
That’s why Romans 8 has become one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible:
- “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. … What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? … in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And then again in chapter 11, after ensuring the Gentile Christians understood the value of their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, urging them to become more unified, Paul cannot help himself but once again point our attention to Jesus, our Saviour. Here is his poetic doxology at the end of chapter 11:
- “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as an unambiguous condemnation, which can then be used to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.
The text, theology and message of Romans – a suggested grammatical change
The narrative flow of Romans, the literary context and the theology of the letter all point to one conclusion: the interpretation that makes sense of Romans 1:18-32 is that these are not Paul’s words. They are a quotation from Jewish writings, and Paul is quoting them to show them to be false and problematic.
But this is a huge shift in interpretation for our modern English translations. An immediate objection is obviously whether the text itself can really support this view. The answer is simple: it can, and does.
Actually, you don’t have to change anything in the text to make this reading obvious. Remember a few things: there were no chapters, verses or headings in the original letter. Any divisions and heading markers have been added much, much later. Secondly, remember that in the original Greek manuscripts there were no punctuation marks. No commas, full stops, quotation marks and no question marks (in fact, there weren’t even spaces between words). Adding these can – and does – make a difference to the reading of texts, and are interpretative decisions. We can change them without changing God’s Word, even though by changing them we might dramatically change how we read God’s Word and what we see it saying to us.
To show the interpretation these scholars are suggesting, you simply add quotation marks around Romans 1:18-32 to set it off from the rest of Paul’s letter. In this reading (which adds nothing nor takes anything away from the original text), the general flow of the first three chapters (and a bit beyond) would go something like this:
- Greetings to all of you believers in Rome from me, the apostle God chose to bring the Good News especially to the Gentiles. I am excited to come to Rome to build a base there to continue sharing the Gospel with everyone, but especially the Gentiles. To do that, I need the Jews and Gentiles in Romans to both know their place in God’s Kingdom. You Jewish people like to think that you’re superior to the godless Romans who you find repulsive. And you Gentiles like to think that the Jews are outdated and their approach to the Gospel not relevant. You’re all wrong. None of us can claim to be closer to God. We’re all sinners in different ways, and we all need a Saviour. Let’s stop judging each other, and judging the choices we each make. The only thing that matters is whether someone professes that Jesus is their Saviour. That doesn’t mean you go on sinning, but it does mean you need to stop imposing your cultural preferences on your brothers and sisters. You must do all of this with grace and love.
Interestingly, in Romans 1:17 Paul actually introduces a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4. As is typical Paul, he uses the quote out of its original context, and uses it to show his Jewish readers that the ways in which they had thought about their theology and traditions needed to change – faith was now going to be central, not works or outward signs. It is certainly possible that the next section would also have been understood by his Jewish readers as a reference to their beliefs that needed to change – that Gentiles were repulsive and beneath contempt. In our English translations, we put quotation marks around the last phrase of verse 17 only and then add a heading. These were NOT in the original. There is nothing in the original text to say that verses 18-32 shouldn’t also be in quotation marks, and everything laid out above suggests that it should be, especially Romans 2:1.
The goal of Biblical translation shouldn’t be to satisfy a theological agenda, nor preserve past interpretations when better options are available. The changes proposed above to Romans 1 and 2 are at least as plausible as what appears in our current English translations, and would go a long way toward clarifying this contentious text.
If you’re convinced that God will not extend His grace to gays, then I probably can say nothing to convince you. These four extended studies in Romans, together with the twelve parts of this series that have looked at the seven verses used to show God’s condemnation of same gender sexual activity, might not be enough to convince you to reconsider your view. But for those who have doubts about the way the church has treated gays; for those who believe more in God’s love and grace than in His wrath and anger; for those who want to believe that the Bible is right when it says “God wants everyone to be saved”; for those who know godly, Christian gay people and can’t understand why the church says these people are awful sinners and without hope of heaven; for all these people, I hope I have adequately shown that we can believe that God loves gays while at the same time holding true to God’s Word revealed in the Bible. It has been our mistake of interpretation that now needs to be corrected.
I started our study of Romans 1 by suggesting that if we just read the text plainly, but from the viewpoint of a gay person who was a committed Christian, you would not feel that the text was condemning you. It is condemning something – but not a loving, same-gender relationship. I have clearly shown that we have mistranslated some of the key words, and misunderstand key concepts, such as “against nature” and “shameful”. There is very little argument with that. And I’ve also shown the context of the text and what Paul was really trying to say through the whole letter, and how that should impact our reading of Romans 1. There is not much argument about that.
And now, in this last part of our study of Romans, I’ve raised six significant objections to the traditional interpretation of Romans 1. These objections all take the Bible seriously, but arrive at a different conclusion about Paul’s view on same sex marriage.
While I have sympathy for these six views, I do not endorse them all, and find some more compelling than others. I present them for two reasons. Firstly, for the sake of completeness – these are views held by committed Christians and qualified theologians alike. Secondly, and more importantly, so that those who might still be clinging to a traditional interpretation of Romans 1, despite the detail I have supplied about context and about the meanings of key words, can see that there are significant additional problems with the traditional reading of Romans 1.
There is a danger that by presenting a variety of alternative suggestions for interpretation I will bring confusion rather than insight. I hope not. I think it’s clear to see that the weight of evidence is actually pretty much overwhelming: Romans 1 does not condemn same-gender couples wishing to enter loving, lifelong, covenantal marriages.
This will leave just one possible Biblical injunction against gay marriage: Jesus and his affirmation of the creation of Adam and Eve and their marriage as a prescriptive model for all marriages. We’ll deal with that in the next section of this study. In doing so, we will also start to develop a positive model of marriage that includes same gender couples.
Previous article in this series: What Romans 1 is Really All About
Next article in this series: Start here: A summary of the Bible’s verses against same sex marriage
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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