The first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains what most readers consider the Bible’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations. Recent scholarship reads the same text and finds just the opposite. Who is right?
To most readers, the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains the Bible’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations—both male and female. Recent scholarship, though, reads the same text and finds just the opposite—that homosexuality is innate and therefore normal, moral, and biblical.
In Romans, Paul seems to use homosexuality as indicative of man’s deep seated rebellion against God and God’s proper condemnation of man. New interpretations cast a different light on the passage.
Paul, the religious Jew, is looking across the Mediterranean at life in the capital of Graeco-Roman culture. Homosexuality in itself is not the focus of condemnation. Rather, Paul’s opprobrium falls upon paganism’s refusal to acknowledge the true God.
It’s also possible Paul did not understand the physiological basis of genuine homosexuality. John Boswell, professor of history at Yale, is among those who differ with the classical interpretation. In Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality he writes:
The persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons.... It is not clear that Paul distinguished in his thoughts or writings between gay persons (in the sense of permanent sexual preference) and heterosexuals who simply engaged in periodic homosexual behavior. It is in fact unlikely that many Jews of his day recognized such a distinction, but it is quite apparent that—whether or not he was aware of their existence—Paul did not discuss gay persons but only homosexual acts committed by heterosexual persons.1
Paul is speaking to those who violate their natural sexual orientation, Boswell contends, those who go against their own natural desire: “‘Nature’ in Romans 1:26, then, should be understood as the personal nature of the pagans in question.”2
Since a homosexual’s natural desire is for the same sex, this verse doesn’t apply to him. He has not chosen to set aside heterosexuality for homosexuality; the orientation he was born with is homosexual. Demanding that he forsake his “sin” and become heterosexual is actually the kind of violation of one’s nature Paul condemns here.
Both views can’t be correct. Only a close look at the text itself will give us the answer. The details of this passage show why these new interpretations are impossible:3
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore, God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
Let me start by making two observations. First, this is about God being mad: “For the wrath of God [orge] is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men...”
Second, there is a specific progression that leads to this “orgy” of anger. Men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (v. 18). They exchanged “the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25). Next, “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity...” (v. 24). They “exchanged the natural [sexual] function for that which is unnatural” (v. 26). Therefore, the wrath of God rightly falls on them (v. 18); they are without excuse (v. 20).
This text is a crystal clear condemnation of homosexuality by the Apostle Paul in the middle of his most brilliant discourse on general revelation. Paul is not speaking to a localized aberration of pedophilia or temple prostitution that’s part of life in the capital of Graeco-Roman culture. He is talking about a universal condition of man.
Regarding the same-sex behavior itself, here are the specific words Paul uses: a lust of the heart, an impurity and dishonoring to the body (v. 24); a degrading passion that’s unnatural (v. 29); an indecent act and an error (v. 27); not proper and the product of a depraved mind (v. 28).
There’s only one way the clear sense of this passage can be missed: if someone is in total revolt against God. According to Paul, homosexual behavior is evidence of active, persistent rebellion against one’s Creator. Verse 32 shows it’s rooted in direct, willful, aggressive sedition against God—true of all so-called Christians who are defending their own homosexuality. God’s response is explicit: “They are without excuse” (v. 20).
What if one’s “natural” desire is for the same sex, though? What if his homosexuality is part of his physical constitution? There are four different reasons this is a bad argument. The first three are compelling; the fourth is unassailable.
First, this rejoinder assumes there is such a thing as innate homosexuality. The scientific data is far from conclusive, though. Contrary to the hasty claims of the press, there is no definitive evidence that homosexuality is determined by physiological factors (see “Just Doing What Comes Naturally,” Clear Thinking, Spring, 1997).
There’s a second problem. If all who have a desire for the same sex do so “naturally,” then to whom does this verse apply? If everybody is only following their natural sexual desires, then which particular individuals fall under this ban, those who are not aroused by their own gender, but have sex anyway? Generally, for men at least, if there is no arousal, there is no sex. And if there is arousal, according to Boswell et al, then the passion must be natural.
Third, this interpretation introduces a whole new concept—constitutional homosexuality—that is entirely foreign to the text. Boswell himself admits that it was “in fact unlikely that many Jews of [Paul’s] day recognized such a distinction,” and that possibly even Paul himself was in the dark.
If Paul did not understand genuine homosexuality, though, then how can one say he excepted constitutional homosexuals when he wrote that they “exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural”? This argument self-destructs.
Further, if Paul spoke only to those violating their personal sexual orientation, then wouldn’t he also warn that some men burned unnaturally towards women, and some women towards men? Wouldn’t Paul warn against both types of violation—heterosexuals committing indecent acts with members of the same sex, and homosexuals committing indecent acts with members of the opposite sex?
What in the text allows us to distinguish between constitutional homosexuals and others? Only one word: “natural.” A close look at this word and what it modifies, though, leads to the most devastating critique of all.
Natural Desire or Natural Function?
Paul was not unclear about what he meant by “natural.” Homosexuals do not abandon natural desires; they abandon natural functions:
“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another...” (1:26–27).
The Greek word kreesis, translated “function” in this text, is used only these two times in the New Testament, but is found frequently in other literature of the time. According to the standard Greek language reference A Greek/English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature4, the word means “use, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse.”
Paul is not talking about natural desires here, but natural functions. He is not talking about what one wants sexually, but how one is built to operate sexually. The body is built to function in a specific way. Men were not built to function sexually with men, but with women.
This conclusion becomes unmistakable when one notes what men abandon in verse 27, according to Paul. The modern argument depends on the text teaching that men abandoned their own natural desire for woman and burned toward one another. Men whose natural desire was for other men would then be exempted from Paul’s condemnation. Paul says nothing of the kind, though.
Paul says men forsake not their own natural desire (their constitutional make-up), but rather the “natural function of the woman.” They abandoned the female, who was built by God to be man’s sexual complement.
The error has nothing to do with anything in the male’s own constitution that he’s denying. It is in the rejection of the proper sexual companion God has made for him—a woman:
“The men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts...” (v. 27).
Natural desires go with natural functions. The passion that exchanges the natural function of sex between a man and a woman for the unnatural function of sex between a man and a man is what Paul calls a degrading passion.
Jesus clarified the natural, normal relationship:
“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh [sexual intercourse]’ (Matthew 19:4–5)?”
Homosexual desire is unnatural because it causes a man to abandon the natural sexual complement God has ordained for him: a woman. That was Paul’s view. If it was Paul’s view recorded in the inspired text, then it is God’s view. And if it is God’s view, it should be ours if we call ourselves Christian.