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A Culture in Chaos: A Bibical Response to Gender & Sexuality-Session 7

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Romans 1:26–27: Dishonorable Passions, Unnatural Relations

Undoubtedly the central and most important passage to wrestle with in terms of a biblical response to homosexuality is Rom 1:26–27, written by Paul, obviously. But it also doesn’t deal with any of the questions or baggage that seems to come up with a lot of the ot questions. So let’s take a look at this passage closely and then respond to some objections that come up against it.
Romans 1:26–27 ESV
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 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.

Traditional Understanding

Now, traditionally, this is meant by saying Paul is writing a general description of mankind rejecting and rebelling against God; and then specifically in verse 26 [where] it says, “For their women, when they exchanged natural relations to those contrary of nature,” it’s referring to natural sexual relations with men, which they were designed to be with, and reject that and engage in lesbian behavior. And then it says, “Likewise, men gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for each other, committed these shameless acts and then received the penalty” for rejecting God’s truth in this way. This is the traditional understanding of this passage.

Is AIDS the Penalty?

Now, before we go any further, sometimes I have heard people make this statement—fortunately not as much today as in the past, but it still lingers out there. People say, Is this penalty due in themselves for their errors, so to speak, the AIDS epidemic?
Can I just tell you a few things about this in response? Number one, we don’t have an utterance from God saying that this is the case. We need to be really careful pretending to speak or claiming to speak for God unless God reveals something clearly to us. But interestingly, the AIDS epidemic has not only affected gays but also non-gays, and not every gay person has gotten AIDS. So I think this is a crazy claim that goes beyond what God has revealed to be the case.

“Natural to Me,” Not Natural Law

Now, with that said, let’s take a look at one primary and important objection that comes up to the traditional interpretation of this passage. Boswell classically said, “ ‘Natural’ refers to what is ‘natural to me,’ not ‘natural law.’ The reference is to heterosexuals that engage in homosexuality.” So what he is saying is “natural” only applies to somebody who is naturally straight; that person engages in homosexual behavior, it’s wrong for that person. But if somebody is naturally gay or lesbian, then it wouldn’t be wrong for that person to be involved in that kind of sexual behavior.
Not Supported by Context
Well, I think to respond to this it will be very helpful to read the wider context of Romans, and then we will see what’s going on. A basic biblical principle is context, context, context. So the verses before the passage we looked at in 26–27 lay the context for how we are to understand verses 26–27, and in particular what’s meant by “natural.”
Romans 1:18–23 ESV
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For 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. 21 For 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. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

“Natural” Refers to Fixed Order of Creation

Now, given this context, the question is, what does “natural” mean? I think when we look at this passage a little bit more closely, it’s saying that God has revealed His truth to all of mankind simply through creation—that people know God exists, they know God is powerful, and they are accountable to Him simply by looking at creation. In fact, verse 19 says this is plain to them, they know it, it’s obvious that God has revealed His power and His nature in the natural world.
And yet, verse 21 says what? “For although they knew God …” This was obvious to people, and “they” is people throughout the history of the world. It’s giving a macro-perspective here. They knew God, they knew His attributes, they knew He existed but they didn’t honor Him, and after suppressing that truth, it affected their thinking and they became foolish. They claimed to be wise, and instead of worshiping the creator, they take something out of the created world and worship that instead of worshiping God.
So what is meant by “natural” here? Does this seem like Paul was talking about somebody’s feelings of sexual orientation and their experience? And I think the answer is clearly no. “Natural” refers not to our subjective experience, but the fixed order of creation.

Parallels between Genesis 1:26 and Romans 1:23

Look, there is an unmistakable similarity between Gen 1:26 and Rom 1:23, which indicates that Paul is saying homosexual acts are contrary to God’s intended order for creation. So let’s look at these two passages—Gen 1:26, look at the similarity with this and between the Romans passage we will look at next. Gen 1:26 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth.’ ”
Now fast forward to Rom 1:23, which provides the context for verses 26–27, which talks about the issue of homosexuality. Look how close this is to the Genesis passage we just read. It says, “And they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
Paul is speaking of abandoning the natural functions of their bodies, not their orientation. He underscores this by using the Greek words for “male” and “female” rather than “man” and “woman,” which again is a reference back to the creation account.[2]

Romans 1:26–27: Impure or Sinful

Homosexual Practice Impure, Not Sinful

Let’s take a look at a few more objections against the traditional interpretation that in Rom 1:26–27 Paul is condemning homosexual behavior. One we hear from Helminiak in his book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality is this. He says Paul uses vocabulary that indicates he considers “homogenital” acts impure, not sinful. So according to Helminiak, Paul is not calling lesbianism—in terms of behavior—or same-sex sexual behavior sinful; he is just calling it impure. Hence the implication would be that it applied under some otkind of context but not necessarily in the same way today.

Context Indicates Sin

I think the best response to this is to just look again at the context and say, Does the larger passage of Rom 1—in particular the last verses—tell us that Paul is talking about impurity, or is Paul talking about things in particular that he would consider sinful? And I think it’s the latter.
Let’s read Rom 1:29–31 together. Paul writes this; he says, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
Let me ask you an honest question. Does this seem like Paul is talking about impurity here? No. These actions—being a slanderer or a hater of God, being boastful—might cause somebody to be impure, but it is much more than that. Paul is giving a list of explicit sins that he considers rebellion against God.

Refers to Idolatry, Not Sexuality

Another objection comes from Jack Rogers in his book Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality. He says this; he says, “Paul is making a statement about idolatry, not sexuality per se.” So his point is that in Rom 1 Paul is saying idolatry is bad; but the implication would be is if somebody was in a same-sex sexual relationship and it wasn’t idolatrous then that relationship would be fine.

Idolatry a Deliberate Suppression of Truth

Let’s consider a few factors as we look at his objection here. Number one, idolatry is not necessarily a separate sin. It’s not like somebody commits idolatry, and then they commit another sin, but it is linked with everything the passage is addressing. There is a number of different ways that somebody can be sinful and be idolatrous at the same time.
Idolatry is actually a deliberate suppression of the truth. To be idolatrous is to suppress a known truth, and this is what we see in Romans—that Paul, he says that people know that God exists because of creation and they suppress it. Then, in particular, he brings one poignant example of the same kind of suppression, which is an example of idolatry but which is also sinful, which is the same-sex sexual behavior, whether it is in terms of lesbianism or in terms of gay sex. Paul is saying that these acts in themselves are sinful.[4]

Romans 1:26–27: Pederasty, Homosexuality, Lesbianism

Condemning Out-of-Control Lust

Let’s consider three more objections to this important passage in Rom 1:26–27. Another objection says this: that Paul opposes same-sex eroticism that was as a manifestation of out of control lust as consumed with passion. In the contemporary debate, same-sex unions are not driven by such passion, and so Paul does not address them. This is by James Brownson.

Universal Claim about Civilizations

Well, let me make a few comments about this. Number one is that Paul is making a universal claim about civilizations, not about the individuals who partake in this. He is talking about how the masses and the movements throughout history have denied and have rejected God.

Hermeneutical Error

But second and more importantly, Brownson makes a hermeneutical mistake in finding meaning from the bottom up instead of from the top down. You see, meaning is found in the broader context in Scripture, and then we see how it applies to individual words. One of the first things we learn in Hermeneutics 101 is not to take individual words out of the context and read meaning from the bottom up, but the individual words only make sense when we have the broader context.
Here’s an example. A friend of mine—I want to give him credit—a friend of mine, Alan Shlemon with Stand to Reason, he came up with this example. He said, for example, what if he wrote to me and said, “Ever since I got AT&T’s new internet service I have been more pleased than ever. I am downloading HD movies in less than twenty minutes. It’s stupid-fast broadband.”
Hmm, let’s stop and think about this for a second. What would he be saying in this? “Gosh,” I could say, “let’s look at the vocabulary. Notice he uses the word ‘stupid’ to describe his internet. According to Merriam’s dictionary, ‘stupid’ meaning lacking intelligence or common sense. You see, AT&T has been known to have spotty cell service and so many people have been frustrated by this large company’s inability to provide basic coverage. That’s why he calls it stupid. He believes AT&T lacks the common sense to upgrade their broadband.”
Okay, is that at all what he means? No. Actually when he says, used the word “stupid” he means the broadband is super fast. So if you take an individual word like this out of the larger context, you can interpret a meaning that’s not even in the text.
This is what Brownson does. He pulls individual words and says the whole meaning stems from those individual words, but divorces them from the larger context and the argument that Paul is actually making.

Pederasty, Not Homosexuality

Another common objection is this: that Paul is merely speaking of pederasty. Pederasty was a form of sanctioned sexual relationships in the Graeco-Roman culture to varying degrees between a man and between a boy twelve years and older. The idea is that adult male homosexual relationships were not what’s in consideration here in Rom 1:26, but rather Paul’s talking about pederasty.

Men, Not Boys

Well, there’s a few significant problems with this. If you just read Rom 1, it tells us who Paul is speaking about. I mean, it specifically says he is speaking of men committing shameless acts with men. This is people who were consensual at least to a degree, and he’s not referring to boys.

No Lesbian Equivalent to Pederasty

But second, in this passage it says men likewise did the same thing as the women, so whatever the men are doing which is a natural contrary to nature is the same thing the women were doing. But there was no lesbian equivalent of pederasty, so if the men are doing what the women did, and the women were not doing pederasty, then by default the men were not performing practices of pederasty, at least in terms of what Paul is condemning as being wrong. Look, if Paul had meant pederasty, there were a number of Greek terms available to him that specifically meant this, and he didn’t use any of them.

Condemnation a Means of Female Subordination

Let’s look at the last common objection to this passage in Romans, and it is this. This comes from Bernadette Brooten. She says “Paul’s condemnation of homoeroticism … [was] based on female subordination” and is meant “to maintain gender asymmetry.” So it’s kind of this patriarchal writing meant to show that men are more dominant than women in some fashion.

Paul Condemns Both Homosexual and Lesbian Practices

Well, Willard Swartley has written a very important, and I think timely, response to this. He said, “The parallelism between male and female same-sex practices refutes Brooten’s explanation. Nolland rightly observes, ‘Whatever is wrong with these practices (in 1:26–27), it is evidently the same thing that is wrong with both’ gay and lesbian relationships.”
So what Brooten is trying to argue is that Paul used this passage to hold women down and to show the asymmetry between them. But if you just read Romans closely, this is clearly not the purpose of the passage. Whatever the women are engaging in is the same thing the men are engaging in.
Friends, there are many, many objections. If you just look online or talk to somebody you will often find some new objections that maybe you haven’t heard or we haven’t discussed in this class. My encouragement to you would be go back to the text itself, look at the larger flow of how Paul is developing Romans as a whole, look at how he is flowing specifically in Rom 1 and look carefully at the text, and I think you will see that Paul supports the creation narrative we see going all the way back to Genesis: God made them male and God made them female, and He designed sex to be in a loving, committed marriage relationship for life, and any sexual behavior outside of that is a violation of God’s design for nature.[6]
1 Corinthians 6:9–11 ESV
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Another very important passage for us to take a look at is 1 Cor 6:9–10. This is clearly in the letter of Corinthians, which Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. [In] verse 9 Paul writes this. He says,
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The common translation in most English translations of this passage refer to those who practice homosexuality. Is this applicable for today? Well, clearly it’s in the nt, so Paul is writing after the end of the old covenant when we are in the new covenant, but let’s make a few observations about this passage and see what we can learn from it.

Echoes of Leviticus 18–20

[It’s] very interesting that the only sin not mentioned in Lev 18–20 is drunkenness. All the other sins are mentioned somehow within this passage, so that means Leviticus must in some sense bear on how we understand this passage. Now, clearly something different is going on in the Levitical passages that we talked about and what Paul is writing to Corinth. But it seems that his understanding of what is sexually right and sexually wrong and what is moral and immoral was not in a vacuum, but it was understood of how God had already revealed Himself to be.

Arsenokoitai, Not Paiderastai

Now, revisionist attempts to find arsenokoitai, which is the term translated—one of the terms translated—as “homosexuality,” to actually exclude homosexual behavior. So, many times they’ll say “No, that was a term that meant something different, like master and slave, or it refers to pederasty, not the kind of homosexual behavior that we see today.” But again, as we stated previously, if Paul meant something like pederasty, why wouldn’t he use the term that was common in that culture at that time, the Greek term? Actually there were multiple terms—why wouldn’t he use them? He doesn’t. Rather he uses a term that likely indicates that he is referring to same-sex behavior.

Malakoi: Passive Partner

Now, malakoi is best understood as the passive partner in homosexual intercourse. This is by Robert Gagnon in his classic book The Bible and Homosexual Practice, page 312. So you have malakoiand you have arsenokoitai, one is the passive partner and one is the active partner, which is translated as “homosexuality.”

Septuagint Likely Source for Arsenokoitai

The question is, where does Paul get these words from? Because it seems that arsenokoitai is a new word that hadn’t been used elsewhere by Paul, or really in the Graeco-Roman culture at that time. We see the word showing up later. So Paul coins a new term. Where does it come from? I think it’s pretty clear in this passage that Paul uses the Septuagint. You see, the Septuagint is the most likely source for the origination of arsenokoitai. If Paul is going to coin a new term, it’s going to come from how he actually uses words or how words were used in the book of Leviticus. Arsenokoitai is a phrase that Paul brought together from some of the very words that we see in the Septuagint in Lev 18.

Condemns All Same-Sex Sexual Behavior

Now, keep in mind, before he condemns the malakoi and arsenokoitaifor their persistence in sin, Paul condemns idolaters and adulterers, and then he condemns thieves and greedy people. Adultery and idolatry are often associated in the Bible, and thievery and greed certainly go together. This makes it likely that arsenokoitaigoes hand in hand with malakoi, and that he is actually condemning all same-sex sexual behavior.

God’s Design for Sex, Hope for Salvation

But before we move on from this passage, let’s briefly read it again but include the last verse. So Paul says again, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” This is 1 Corinthians 6:9. He says, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually moral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy nor drunkards, nor revilers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” But then he says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of our God.”
First Corinthians 6:9–11 is another example that we’ve seen of the consistent story in the Scriptures from Gen 1 and 2, through Gen 19, through Lev 18–20, through Rom 1, now in his letter to Corinth that God has designed sex to be between one man and one woman in a committed, loving relationship for life.
And you know what? For all of us that fall short, this passage also makes it clear that there is hope that people in Corinth sinned greatly not just in this area, but in a bunch of different areas, and they were washed, they were sanctified, and they were welcomed into the body of Christ because they turned from their sin. That’s the hope we need to keep proclaiming today.[7]
[1]McDowell, S. (2017). AP371 A Biblical Response to Homosexuality. Lexham Press.
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