My heart beating and my hands shaking, I read Romans 1:24-27. Aware that I am attracted to other women, knowing that my commitment to the authority of scripture meant I wouldn’t be willing to shrug or explain these verses away, I was afraid of what they meant for my life, and what they said about me as a person.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about 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 up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and 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.

Do these words apply to me? I’m in love with a woman, does that mean I’m experiencing shameful, unnatural attraction? Has God me up to the “lusts of [my] heart to impurity”? And if I ever were to follow my inclinations and have a romantic relationship with a woman, no matter how committed and caring I am, would this relationships be shameful, unnatural, and would I receive in myself some type of “due penalty for [my] error?

Many believe these words are the most damning in scripture for those who would dare affirm LGBT sexuality. For many, though it’s easy to see how the other passages of scripture are unrelated to love between people of the same gender, Romans 1:24-27 is the exception.

My conclusions are different. After much prayer and study, I found the good news in these verses. I believe it has nothing to do with loving and romantic care between people of the same gender, but that they still have an important word to speak to all of us—gay straight, and bisexual alike.

It’s About Consumption Not Care

Let’s start with verse 24, because that is the verse that first introduces the conversation about sexual acts:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

Too often Romans 1:24-27 is read backwards, with the same-sex acts mentioned at the very end in verse 27 read into verses 24 to 26, but that’s the wrong way to read. The first introduction is that lust and impurity with groups of people who are dishonoring their bodies not with private intimacy between two, but “among themselves.”

Paul is talking here about the same thing he addressed later in the same book. Romans 13:13 says, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Paul is writing to Rome. In this passage he is specifically speaking about Gentiles to a Jewish audience living in Rome. So he was speaking about Romans. We know that wealthy Romans sometimes had orgies, often involving slaves and inferiors. This behavior is referenced in scripture and there are extrabiblical accounts as well. Read Browson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality for more information. These men would have had wives waiting at home with no say in the matter while they indulged in orgies.

This is Paul’s introduction to the topic and should not be separated from the continuing discussion in verses 26-27 which only expand on verse 24.

To say that these married Romans were a group of gay men would be to read into the text in the service of a point that one is seeking to make, but not the point Paul was making. To say that these relationships between people of the same gender involved fidelity and care is unfaithful to the text. The wives would certainly disagree.

It’s a Result of Idolatry

Perhaps the first part of this passage I noticed did not apply to me at all was when it spoke of this same-sex eroticism as being the result of idolatry. After describing idolaters who abandoned their creator for images and objects of created things, they “therefore” were given up to “lust of their hearts and impurity” (vs. 24).

Just in case that word “therefore” isn’t convincing enough. Paul made it explicitly clear in verse 25, stating that this is happening “because” of their exchanging worship of God for worship of images. He then returns to further explain the nature of the sexual sin in verses 26-27.

I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I certainly hadn’t abandoned worship of God. I was at seminary pursuing full-time ministry as a vocation. I wanted to be faithful to God, serve God and my church in ministry, I was fully committed to serving God and my church for the rest of my life, whether or not I was offered a job to do so.

What was I doing wrong? Why was I experiencing something that was the result of idolatry?

Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe my sexual orientation is something different. Surely what was happening to me didn’t fit what Paul was describing as a continued falling away from God that began with idolatry. If the first part didn’t fit, maybe this part didn’t fit either.

The Theme of the Passage is About Objectification

Stepping back and looking at the big picture of this passage made it make more sense. Paul does make this context clear.

  1. Worship of God is replaced with images; their fidelity to God is replaced by objects that look like created things.

  2. Honorable sexual relationships were replaced with dishonorable; their fidelity to their spouses also broke down and was replaced by sexual objectification of others.

  3. Righteous treatment of others was replaced by exploitation, malice, hate, and harm; their fidelity to humanity in general broke down.

I’ve written an in-depth explanation of how this works in the context of the passage if you would like to understand it better.

Same-sex sex is an especially useful example in this case precisely because in their society it never happened in the context of love and fidelity. There was always some level of exploitation whether it was sexual assault, pederasty, or orgies as in this case.

Same-sex sexuality wouldn’t serve as such a good example if Paul were writing today and not 2,000 years ago, because two men or two women who are married, share a mortgage, and raise children would be completely out of place in this passage.

For those who object, saying that what’s important is that Paul says “men committing shameless acts with men” is speaking not to context but to the specific acts, I have two things to consider.

First, we don’t treat all of Paul’s writings that way. When he says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head,” we certainly don’t take this as a commandment or a matter of church discipline. It’s the context of their day that men have short hair and women long hair, and violation of this cultural standard is shameful.

Second, this verse does occur in a context. Paul is talking about specific people who go from idolatry to sexual consumption to generally consuming other human being in their hateful and selfish conduct.

Same-sex eroticism only and always occurs in such contexts in scripture. Perhaps there is a reason for that. Maybe that’s the only context the biblical writers ever considered? We certainly have no evidence otherwise.

Vocabulary of Unbridled Lust

In his description of the behavior of the Romans, Paul scours the dictionary for every word he can use to describe their behavior in terms of consuming and exclusive lust, often stacking them on top of each other for emphasis.

In the course of three verses (24,26-27) Paul uses the words epithumia, pathe, exekauthesan, and orexei, all synonyms for lust. Some of these words individually are used elsewhere in the context of marriage, but taken together, with no context or indication of care and love, Paul has something else entirely in mind.

He is emphatically communicating his point. This isn’t the healthy sexual appetite in the context of care and fidelity, but lust, passion, desire, and craving unbridled and immoderate.

No Meaning for Same-Sex Couples

So what makes people willing to apply a verse about orgies in the context of idolatry, adultery, and objectification to same-sex couples? Same-sex couples do not belong in this passage. They wouldn’t fit. That much should be obvious.

One reason is probably that people are looking for a direct answer from scripture to their question about whether same-sex relationships are wrong. I understand that desire. But we shouldn’t try to force scripture to answer directly questions it never asked directly. When we are asking a question that was never asked in the Bible, we shouldn’t expect a direct answer.

Paul answered the questions of the churches in Rome in the 1st century. Not the questions in Ireland in the 5th century. Not the questions in China in the 14th century. Not the questions in modern Western cultures in the 21st century.

Some things are timeless. There are basic questions about love, the worship of God, and the treatment of others that are asked by all people at all times. The questions about sexual orientation do not fall in this category, and there are many other questions in our modern society that aren’t answered directly in scripture.

God must trust us to apply his principles. God must expect us to do the same thing Jesus did in Matthew 5-7 and understand the heart of God’s word and how it applies in our lives.

The other reason this passage is often applied to LGBT people is less innocent. The reason someone who does understand the context would think this passage is appropriate to same-sex couples is if they believe such relationships are inherently selfish and characterized by uncontrolled lust, objectification, and the breakdown of basic fidelity.

In other words, they believe LGBT people are inherently inferior and that when we make loving commitments to each other we aren’t motivated by love and care like those who make commitments to people of the opposite gender. They think we belong in Romans 1 with idolaters, people consumed by lust, hateful, arrogant, and foolish people who despise righteousness.

When you encounter such interpretations, you can be sure the willingness to apply these texts to people like myself are not based on a careful reading of scripture. Sometimes what’s really happening is a misunderstanding of who LGBT people are. It’s a misunderstanding of the type that once landed same-sex couples in prison in America for expressing affection (and still does in many countries), that leads to accusations of LGBT people being pedophiles for no reason but their orientation, and that fosters disgust, hate, and sometimes violence against sexual minorities. This understanding has no place in the heart of a Jesus follower.

Beloved LGBT readers, when you find in yourself love that is holy and good, the desire to give to another person all the beautiful ideals given to us in 1 Corinthians 13, and the desire to unite yourself with another human in such love, I hope you can see that your love is not what is being described by Paul. I hope you can learn to embrace the queer and beautiful love you have been given by God. I hope you can embrace the truth that is in Jesus, that love is worth sacrifice.

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6 Replies to “5 Things You May Not Have Realized About Paul’s Anti-Homosexual Words”

  1. I read most of this article,To me it seems as if the author is trying to justify any sexual behaviour. You can’t make the Bible say what you want it to say. The Lord wants moral purity from everyone of us.Jesus said that to look on a woman to lust after her, means that the man has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Don’t look for loopholes so you can do what you want to do with anyone you want to do it with. The standard is high & The Lord expects us to attain it with His Help. No excuses.!!!!!

    1. This is just a way to dismiss the arguments without actually engaging them. God’s standard is high, and dismissing people is not part of the standard. Self-examination, humility, and a willingness to change in order to better pursue the love that has been set before us, that’s a truly high standard. Making life harder for sexual minorities than for straight, cis-gender people? That’s false holiness and impure love.

  2. If you argue that the only mention of homosexual activity that is negative in the bible refers to violence (which is a far stretch because it does not say violence in words), and NOT because it is fundamentally against God’s design, then where do you stand with orgies?  Scripture uses words that imply God views same sex relationships as immoral and against His design.

    Orgies that are not violent, but that are all concentual, and please all involved? Why would God forbid orgies? Scripture uses words that imply God simply views plural sexual interaction as immoral, and against his design.

    Another topic is incestuous relationships. No violence, mutual consent, monogamous and fidelity to each other? Scripture uses words that imply it is forbidden not because of violence but because it is against God’s design.

    Your main argument for all your interpretations of homosexual references in the Bible is that the Bible is condemning violent, aggressive, or unconsented sexual acts between same sex relationships. However the language Scripture uses does not vary between all of these topics. In that way, how can you draw the conclusion that the same words refer to violence exclusively in the different mentions (uniformly), but not apply them to the other sexual acts the Bible condemns?

    How do you define sexual immorality?

    1. No, I don’t say it refers to violence only. I don’t believe I’ve ever said that.

      If you read the article carefully, I’m saying that Paul is speaking specifically of Roman orgies as being sinful, objectification, and violation of fidelity.

      I like the biblical definition of sexual ethics given by Brownson, “People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives.” I highly recommend his book, “Gender, Bible, Sexuality.” If you are interested in learning more it’s a great place to go.

      He also speaks of sexual ethics in terms of establishing a kinship bond. In the case of brother and sister, whether they are biologically related or even adopted I would add, they are violating the previously established kinship bond. Same with sexual relationships between parent and child, even adult child. They are already family to you in the sense of siblings, and that is incompatible with romantic partnership.

      Let me ask you something, if you were to take away the 2 or 3 verses in the Bible that speak against siblings being sexually involved with each other, would you then think it was okay? Is your belief that it’s wrong really based solely on the statement in Leviticus 18 and a couple other places? Or would you still think it’s wrong? I suspect that you would still think it was wrong. If that’s correct, then maybe your sexual ethics aren’t as dependent on literalistic biblical interpretations as you suspect.

  3. Solid treatment of contentious and often difficult/troublesome text!

    I feel that there is an important component of the sex (especially same-sex acts) that Paul and the Bible at-large condemn which you seem to have left out, or under-emphasize IMHO. And that is the aspect of power, domination, control and even ownership which of course ties into humiliation, subordination and shame of the one who is being penetrated. I believe this to be one the most prominent ideas commonly associated with male-male sex in Mediterranean cultures going back to Biblical times.
    Even into the modern era (although beginning to fade somewhat) in many/most Mediterranean cultures there is a fair amount of unspoken/tacit tolerance of ‘bisexuality’ with men, especially in certain circumstances (I’m referring much more to the secular population). There is a prevailing yet rather hidden idea that it is tolerable for a man, particularly a young man who is feeling horny yet does not have access to his wife/girlfriend or who is single to engage in sexual acts with prostitutes or other men as long as they are always in the dominant role. In fact, they typically would not even consider the act to be homosexual on their part despite the obvious fact that only two men were involved. These men are less likely to brag about such exploits to their comrades especially as they get older. Outside the cultures where it exists this is a poorly understood complex paradigm of sex and sexuality which is the result and culmination of numerous subtle differences in perception in many areas, some with little to no apparent connection. But in my opinion this mentality is key to fully understanding Biblical references to certain male-male sex acts.

    I also respectfully propose that you at least consider carefully evaluating some of the terminology you employ in your writing. For example, you often use the phrase “same-sex eroticism” in reference to these degrading sexual acts. I find this not only inaccurate but somewhat offensive because in reality there is nothing erotic about them—for anyone involved. At least not with my definition of “erotic” which perhaps differs from yours more than I realize. In general you seem to choose your words carefully and wisely, but I’ve noticed some instances where the choice of words seems a bit less than ideal, and in certain cases seems like it could misrepresent if not undermine the concepts you are advocating. I am open to the possibility that the discrepancy may be my personal understand of certain words which may not be as aligned with commonly held meaning as I believe. But I don’t see what you may have to lose by considering and exploring that same possibility yourself. Please also consider that my criticism may truly be coming from a sincere desire to help your writing to be as solid and precise as possible! It is “constructive” in the true sense of the word.

    BTW, I am pleased that you have iterated clearly, more than once, that essentially many of these questions we have are not directly answered in the Bible! And rather than try to bend and reframe the Bible, twisting its words to answer our queries, we must learn to actually think for ourselves in a responsible and informed manner, based on the teachings of scripture. I feel that all too often Christians don’t really want to “think”—they would much prefer to have all the answers ready to be spoon-fed to them. And that is understandable and not surprising, but it is lazy and can also be a sign of fear (due to a subconscious acknowledgement of one’s ignorance and ill-preparedness to tackle hard questions).
    You are clearly neither lazy nor fearful! And that is a very inspiring standard/example you are providing.

    1. I really appreciate all this feedback. There may well be some power dynamics in pay as well with the Roman orgies, I don’t see how there couldn’t be considering how highly structured and hierarchical their society is. I don’t think that is as clear in the text of Romans. I do try to take an approach in which I don’t rely too much on Greco-Roman culture not because I don’t think it’s important, but because I want to articulate things in a way that more conservative folks will resonate with more clearly. I have another reason for emphasizing the idea of out of control lust as well, and that’s that over and over critics say that affirming theology rests on there being exploitation and say that this isn’t the case in Romans because of the specific verbage that sounds mutual. You and I know that there can still be power dynamics at play here, but even if you don’t buy that there definitely are, there are other reasons Paul had for condemning these acts. I do use the phrase eroticism intentionally to distinguish it from any concept of sexual orientation. I’m not sure why you don’t think it’s an appropriate word. What would your understanding of the word be? I do actually think a close reading of the text provides most of the context that other literature only confirms. But the info from culture is so illuminating. Have you seen the paintings they’ve uncovered at Pompeii? I heard they had to put a rating on them to keep kids out because they were pornographic.

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