Scripture and Homosexuality: Romans

Paul writing

Our series continues on understanding what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about homosexuality.  All references made by other authors can be found here.

Romans 1:26-27

Moving into the New Testament, the debate over scripture’s view of homosexuality takes a slight turn, in that now everything is compared to the ministry of Jesus and His message of love and grace, which in the end triumphs over everything else.  While this is true, that God’s grace stands above all, for God to go against His written Word would cause Him to go against Himself.  Regardless of how much culture changes and man’s knowledge about life grows, God’s Word, especially His moral laws, still stand strong (Isaiah 40:6-8, 55:11; Matthew 5:18).  As Gaiser simplifies, “all Christian interpretation of the law will be in the light of the gospel.  This will … radically influence our relationships with and treatment of [gays and lesbians]; yet it will not eradicate our present problem, since … the proscription of homosexual activity specifically remains in the New Testament” (p. 115).  Therefore, let’s look at how the New Testament deals with homosexuality, by first looking at the words of Paul and then looking at the words and ministry of Christ.

Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 comes into play as one of the most debated, and the most clearest, passage against homosexuality.

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Here, Paul refers to both men and women who practice homosexuality, and calls them to account for their unnatural sin.  Many on the pro-gay side contend, though, that what Paul is actually referring to are people who were once straight but who have now chosen to be gay, “thus violating their true nature.  Homosexuality, if committed by true homosexuals, is not a sin” (Dallas, p. 195).  Though, as Dallas rightly admits, Paul never even hints at the idea that there could be a true gayness verses a false gayness.  In fact, “when [Paul] refers to ‘men’ and ‘women’ in these versus, he chooses the Greek words that most emphasize biology: arsenes (males) and theleias (females) … He is saying, in other words, that homosexuality is biologically unnatural – not just unnatural to heterosexuals, but unnatural to anyone” (Dallas, p. 195).

Paul’s Context

Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 takes us back to Genesis, where God created male and female to have sexual relations with each other, understanding that anything outside of this would be against God’s natural created order.  In this vein, then, we need to read the full context housing verses 26 and 27 to better understand what Paul is saying.

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Romans 1:18-32

Too often, pastors take Romans 1 and apply these verses strictly to gays and lesbians.  This is dreadfully wrong and horrible exegesis, for Paul is clearly talking about many other people besides gays and lesbians.  In fact, Paul is retracing man’s total downfall from the beginning to (his) present day.  His goal is simple: to show that man has turned from God towards their own “lordship” and worship, causing God to take a “hands-off” approach to their wickedness.  I do not believe what some conservative theologians hold to, that this passage shows a downward spiral of man’s depravity with homosexuality being the worse of sins and the bottom of the evilness barrel.  Homosexuality, to me, is a sin caused by the fall, and definitely shows man’s attempt at redefining God’s original intentions, but it is not the sin of sins.  At the heart of it, homosexuality centers around one’s identity and where identity is found.  Paul is clearly showing that since the beginning of time, mankind has been trading their God-given identity for a self-made identity.  Man’s sin, including homosexuality, is a result of this trade-up.

Paul is also showing the contrast between God’s revelation and man’s ignorance.  Paul concludes that since man desired to live within his (her) depravity, participation in various sins caused further separation between themselves and God: foolishness, debased minds, slander, covetousness, malice, homosexuality, envy, murder, gossip, disobedience, faithlessness, etc.  Moreover, these people were bent on justifying their sin and giving approval to the sin of others.  Romans 1 sounds an awful lot like today’s culture, doesn’t it?

Idols and Knowledge of Homosexuality

Many pro-gay supporters further believe, as with the Levitical passages, that Paul is only referring to homosexuality done in regards to idol worship.  While idol worship is a major theme of Romans 1, it is not the main reason why people engaged in same-sex relations.  Instead, it is because of a rebellion against God – a shift of worship from God to self.  This rebellion in man caused people to commit the various sins against themselves and God, one being homosexuality.  These sins were idolatrous, sure, but people weren’t doing these sins to serve an idol, rather to serve themselves (verse 25).

In addition, as stated in the last post, if Paul was strictly placing the sins of Romans 1 in to the context of worshipping idols, then any of these sins can be deemed acceptable outside of such worship: gossip is ok, murder is alright, deceit is moral, and we can hate God.  This isn’t the case though, as the majority of Christians on both sides would agree that these things are in fact sins – whether done to idols or not.  And if this is the case, then same-sex relations has to fit into this conclusion as well.

Another argument pro-gay supporters contend is that Paul did not fully understand homosexuality as we know it today.  This is bogus and suggests that there are different versions of homosexuality, and that God has a limited knowledge of His creation.  These suggestions though cannot be supported.  As for God’s limited knowledge, this idea clearly goes against scripture (1John 3:19-20, Job 37:16, Psalm 147:5, Isaiah 55:8-11).  As for Paul’s lack of knowledge, I think Jerry Kirk sums it up great:

Romans and Greeks had long rationalized homosexuality, and even Plato in the Symposium gave it his approval.  It is unthinkable that Paul would not designate which kinds of homosexual behavior he would approve … He certainly drew distinction when it came to other ethical questions[:] … between sufficient and insufficient grounds for divorce … a proper and an improper use of meat offered to idols … between good and bad use of the law.  But here [Romans 1], with this major issue, Paul made no distinctions.  Both homosexual lust and behavior were categorically rejected and condemned as sinful (p. 59).

Furthermore, as we’ll continue to talk about in the other New Testament passages, whenever Paul refers to positive sexual activity, he always speaks in regards to male and female relations, never same-sex.  One of the great passages of proof for this is found in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul is talking about marriage and the sexual relationship within.  Had there been a distinction of gay relationships, Paul would have mentioned such a distinction.

It Comes Down to Identity

Author Leanne Payne speaks truth when she says, “In worshipping the creature, we lose our identity” (p. 126); and this is precisely what has happened causing men to lust after men and women to lust after women.  Sin and worldly desires have distorted the basic and fundamental identity of mankind.  We have placed ourselves upon God’s throne, thus taking on an identity label of “Self.”  However, in the midst of their arguments against this idea of a core identity crisis, the gay community offers the Church a valuable observation: gays and lesbians are not evil demons that are hell bound.  Again, both sides need to come together on common ground, remembering that the issue is not with the person but with the action.  Gays and lesbians are not the enemy, sin is; and the Church needs to remember that.  As Hill refers to the ever popular ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ approach, “… people are rarely able to separate the hatred for the sin from lesbian and gay people who, for them, embody sinfulness and evil” (p. 339).  The Church must begin to separate the sin from the person, and see people through the eyes of Christ (2 Peter 3:9).  May the Church be eager to take the first step toward change: showing by example that it is possible to separate the two.

The Church must embrace and cement herself into the identity of Christ, just as those who are gay need to do.

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7 responses to “Scripture and Homosexuality: Romans

  1. Shawn, please say more about your parting thought, that is, separating the sin from the person. I have found this idea particularly troublesome, because we tend to think of sin as only something that we do (or say) that is wrong in some way. Then, we think we can somehow stay in the clear, as it were, if we can keep our behavior in line (and our mouths shut).

    You can probably guess where I am headed with this. If we parse our behavior, our words, and our thoughts from our respective identities, we open the door to distorted living. We end up thinking of ourselves as “good Christians,” based on our own assessment of our conduct, and lose awareness of anything else that separates us from God. We only have to go a little further down this path and sin becomes mostly wrong behavior; we can think what we want as long as we keep it to ourselves and behave rightly.

    This is where I have had a lot of trouble in church: A lot of church-folk will parse being gay from behaving gay, “You’re welcome here, but not with your partner.” Or, “You can be gay here, as long as you are celibate.” The message becomes, “We love you as a sinner but we hate your sin (which is, as best we can tell, making love to one of the same gender).”

    This kind of system, in which our behavior takes precedence over our personalities, thoughts, and attitudes is exactly the problem Jesus pointed out in the Pharisees with such vigor!

    The bottom line for me is that sin is not readily divorced from the person; it’s intrinsic, and part of our nature as human beings. Does that make sense?

    • Hey Seth – thanks for commenting.

      I think I understand what you’re saying: it’s impossible to separate the sin from the person because the two are one. But I’m not sure if I agree with this assessment.

      Yes, we all have a sinful nature, and we will be plagued with temptations and sin until Christ comes back to restore everything. However, as Christians, we are called to see each other not be the sins we commit but by the person we are. If we are in Christ, Paul says that we are a new creation. In dealing with non-Christians, though they are sinners, they are people in need of a Savior. This thought comes from such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:16 and 17.

      Ultimately, it goes back to the truth of “belong, believe, and be transformed”. Mankind needs to understand the great love God has for us. In embracing this unconditional love, we begin to believe His word, which in turn causes us to align our lives to His standard verses our own. We don’t gloss over a person’s sin, but we don’t make it their sole identity either. The Church needs to be a place that is open to all people, regardless of their faults. It needs to be such a community that people willingly embark on each other’s faith journey – not in a superior attitude but as a companion and servant.

      As I’ve said before, gays and lesbians need to be in the Church – it’s as much a place for them as straights. Some places might not like the idea of gay partners attending together, but if the Church wants them to leave then they must excuse everyone else involved in sin, too. We can’t “reject” one sin and “entertain” others.

      In my conclusion on this series (of Scripture and Homosexuality), I’ll talk more about this idea and what it means to live in the tension of Jesus’ love and ministry.

      Does this clear up your question?

  2. Pingback: Scripture and Homosexuality « Six:11 Ministries·

  3. Pingback: Scripture and Homosexuality « Six:11 Ministries·

  4. This is gonna be an excellent space for dialogue–thanks for tending it!

    Let me try to re-state my thoughts:

    I would like to see phrase “love the sinner; hate the sin” eliminated from the church’s lexicon.
    In my experience with GLBT people (and my own as a gay man), this approach is probably the fastest way to alienate us entirely. Because the only way to hate the sin is to identify sins and tally them, focusing primarily on behavior that is off-limits. Furthermore, that focus on behavior is a problem because if we behave properly, we can still get away with all kinds of inner trouble if we keep it to ourselves. We end up being pharisees and whitewashed tombs!

    We need to reframe this picture. In my earlier post, I suggested that we look a sin as a general condition instead of a list of infractions. Sin is anything and everything that keeps us from being what God wants us to be, and it goes hand-in-hand with being human, even as children of God. Instead of parsing sins from sinners, we can offer and appropriate God’s abundant grace to close any gap between the way things are and they way they ought to be.

    I could elaborate more, but let me stop here for now.

    Thanks again, Shawn!

    • I see what you mean.

      I totally agree that the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” has caused more harm then good. In talking with conservative Christians though, this is how they process and understand the truth that they can genuinely love someone and yet not like what they do (how they live). For them, this statement works – it makes sense to them. For you, me, and others, the statement speaks another language. The Church is trying :0)

  5. Pingback: An Aversion to Labeling Sin: Pastor Smith « JourneyManTom: Weblog·

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