When I was struggling with my sexuality and my faith the most difficult, and probably obvious, text that I wrestled with was the Romans 1 text. Now that I have read it maybe hundreds of times, if not more, it becomes less and less frightening and less and less about homosexuality; especially when Paul’s discourse in Romans 2 comes into play.
To be frank, it’s really not about homosexuality at all. It’s about pagan idolatry. And what has happened, unfortunately for homosexuals, is that conservatives have taken a microscope and focused their little lenses on two specific verses in chapter 1; verses 26 and 27. It’s important to point out that the word, “homosexual,” wasn’t even in the English lexicon until the 19th century. It began to replace words already translated from the Greek NT. This is a whole different blog topic that may eventually pop up, but it’s important that people understand that this term wasn’t even understood properly in the 19th century, as it was directly related to a form of medical insanity. The understanding has since been changed and no longer considered a mental illness needing to be treated. Clearly, the broad understanding of what the homosexual actually experiences has evolved and become clearer; as does any unknown or misunderstood thing. The homosexual cannot change their feeling just like the heterosexual can’t. And their feeling is for legitimate companionship, affection, and intimacy with a partner. It has little to do with, just simply, sex. Yes, sex is a component to that intimacy, but it is a desire for bonding and companionship, just as it is for the heterosexual-this includes sex, but does not revolve around it.
Now, pause for a moment and think of what comes directly before and after these 2 verses…can you remember? If you can’t, then that is a major problem. That means that these two verses stand out without their historical background or contextual components to go with them; or it means you just don’t read the Bible at all or, perhaps in the way it’s intended to be read; for discipleship… and not devotionally… so that you can have a nice thought for the day. This is a typical harvesting of like texts within Scripture (the Clobber texts) and a common, yet poorly performed tactic by traditionalists and conservatives.
I went on my earlier tangent about homosexual desire to set this up for your understanding. The kind of “exchanges” and sex that Paul refers to in Romans 1 is hardly anything like what I just described above for the homosexual desiring monogamous, committed companionship under God. No, this is much more severe. The kind of people described in Romans one have made a total of two major, and I mean major, “exchanges” directly prior to the third and last one; the Clobber text.
For the verses, I will use Mounce’s interlinear text translated directly from the Greek language. First, some background, this is a diverse mix of people who Paul is addressing, not to mention a very large one. The letter to the Romans is a mix up of both Jews and Gentiles. Chapter 1 specifically references Gentiles, and he is purposely working the Jewish Christian audience up into a frenzy; and we will see how he throws it back in their face in chapter 2.
After Paul’s initial theological discourse in chapter 1, he kicks it off with wrath for “… those who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness…” (V18). He then goes into God’s “eternal power and divine nature (take note of this)” and how it is “clearly seen” (V20). This leaves no room for speculation as to who or what created that which is seen. Paul states that God’s “invisible attributes” (V20) are clear through visible creation. For Gentiles, who practiced pagan, polytheism, tying directly into Greek and Roman gods, this is a poignant statement. This is not new information to the Jews. This information does leave all, however, “without excuse” (V20).
Now for the first exchange and processes of idolatry: Paul declares that idolatry begins with a conscious decision to turn away from God, even while knowing He exists and is the creator of all things, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks…” (V21). When this happened, these people consciously, “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God (take note of this) for images resembling corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…” (V23). This is an obvious reference to anthropomorphic pantheon deities and polytheism.
As a result of this first exchange, God hands them over to the consequences of it, ” Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts, to impurity so that they dishonored their bodies among themselves” (V24). As a result of this, we now enter the second exchange: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator…” (V25).
Here, we see idolatry escalate in gradients. It begins with a conscious and purposeful decision to not acknowledge the known God. The consequence is impurity which dishonors the body (the created being by God); the result of this begins another exchange deeper into the sin by willingly trading the truth about God for a lie; directly leading to worship of the creature and not the creator God.
The third exchange is a consequence of the second exchange: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature; (ESV With Strong’s, V26). Let’s stop here… this exchange is two-fold; it’s both a trading of the natural for what goes against nature and it is a consequence of the second exchange. Additionally, it does not state how women do this; it could be in any number of ways; orgies, multiple partners, prostitution, bestiality, etc. And remember when I said to take note on some verses above? The standard of worship is the “incorruptible God”, but this is traded for the “corruptible man”. And God’s “divine nature” and our recognition of it is our natural state as creatures created in His likeness. So, to exchange (trade) what is natural for the unnatural, is to trade the known Divine for what is corrupt in corruptible humanity. Clearly, these gradients of idolatry lead to a final trading in and with the physical body (manifesting itself from conscious trade and exchange, mentioned previously, but in the heart and mind).
Verse 27: “…and likewise the men also abandoned the natural relation with women and burned in their passion for one another-men committing shameless acts with other men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (V27). Many will argue that this verse clearly indicates what the women were doing in the verse directly prior to this, but that is not true. Paul doesn’t say that. And we shouldn’t put words into his mouth. “And likewise” is synonymous with words like “similarly” or “in the same way”, this does not point to the act itself, but the state or condition that leads to the actual behavior. Because of their idolatrous practices, the men, like the women who are also idolatrous give up their natural (to them) relation with women, and burn in (excessive) lust for other men. Excessiveness is the key here. These men are already naturally attracted to women and may even be married to them, but in their excessive, idolatrous and illicit behavior, they aren’t satisfied with just what they are attracted to naturally; they burn for and take more. This is a common practice in Greco-Roman pederasty, where married men would have sex with young boys and commonly have boy lovers. This was for the upper-echelon of men and it was held in high regard to do this. I’m not saying that Paul is referring to pederasty, but he could be. It would’ve been practiced, it would’ve been well known behavior for pagan Gentiles in the community he is referring to. The people mentioned above are clearly not seeking monogamous, committed, and loving relationships. This is purely physically based and done solely in order to satiate excessive and out of control lust; a product of their blatant idolatry.
The next verses seem to quickly shift gears and if Paul is simply referring broadly to the homosexual audience then the next mentioning of sins are a problem; they are a problem because then we would have to assume that every homosexual is also what Paul begins to describe; “And as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a debased mind to do things that ought not to be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, meanness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to their parents, foolish, covenant breakers, unloving, ruthless. Though they understand the righteous requirement of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only continue to do them but also heartily approve of others who practice them” (V28-32).
Whoa! That means that even gay brothers and sisters who choose to be celibate are these things? Or that all homosexuals are these things and have committed acts like murder? Is that what Paul is saying? NO! Like I said earlier, homosexuality is not a choice. Idolatry, especially in the way that Paul is going off about it in here, is. Idolatry is a conscious choice. It is blatant and glaring that this is what Paul is emphasizing and it is also used to work up his Jewish audience, which he addresses in Chapter 2.
Harshly, Paul states to them, “Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself for you who judge are practicing the same things” (V1). I’m sure this was deflating for them. After all, Gentile inclusion was a pretty huge deal in the New Covenant. Paul is saying that the Jews, in and by their judgement of Gentiles who do this, are just as guilty as those described in Chapter 1-something to be noted.
In the words of Oliver O’Donovan, a scholar in Christian ethics in his book, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion, “A seriously meant inquiry into what the Bible means and how it may apply to us can never be out of place in the church. We must not, then, in the defense of a supposed “Biblical” ethic, try to close down moral discussions prescriptively, announcing that we already know what the Bible teaches and forbidding further examination. It is the characteristic “conservative” temptation to erect a moment in Scriptural interpretation into an unrevisable norm that will substitute, conveniently and less ambiguously, for Scripture itself. The word “authority” means, quite simply, that we have to keep looking back to this source if we are to stay on the right track. Anything else is unbelief—a refusal to open ourselves to the question; what is God saying to us through His word?”