By Lee Karl Palo
© 2017 Lee Karl Palo
26 That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. 27 Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies. – Romans 1:26-27
What follows is an analysis of the text with relation to both sides of the debate on the acceptability of homosexual practice, also known as the debate on full inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. The former is the way the debate would be characterized by “traditionalists,” while the latter would characterize the “progressive” outlook. Why there are differences between the two ways of characterizing the debate will be made clear.
Implications of the text for the church today
Why these two verses? There are other Biblical texts that speak to the issue, it is claimed (though by any reckoning they are few). The Old Testament has two chiastically paired passages in Leviticus, which will be mentioned later. Depending on who you talk to, there are some stories that may or may not have to do with homosexuality, but stories don’t always function as ethical exhortations. When all the men of Sodom express their desire to “know” angels (Genesis 19:4-5), would it be better to say the behavior being condemned first and foremost is gang rape? The New Testament has a couple references to a Greek word whose original meaning is not crystal clear, but today is sometimes translated in ways that make it speak to the contemporary debate. Romans 1:26-27, however, is the least ambiguous reference in the New Testament.
There is a lot at stake regarding the interpretation of these two Bible verses. For traditionalists it is a matter of affirming what they perceive to be the Bible’s ethical standards. To progressives, significant segments of the population, those who self-identify as LGBTQ, are being unfairly excluded from full participation in the life of the church. Perhaps ironically, both sides in this debate do not see their position as having the implications their opponents claim. This should be a clue that most people are talking past each other instead of talking to each other. Before we dive into what the text means for the contemporary debate, it is important to first understand what it meant in its original context (as best as that can be done).
Context – What is Paul’s letter to the Romans?
First, it is important to ask what is the book of Romans? It is an undisputed letter of the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome, of which he was not the founder, nor had he yet visited. However, Paul knows or has heard of at least a handful of Christians from the church in Rome (16:3-15). Paul writes the letter as a means to ask for financial support for his intended missionary activity in Spain (15:24). For those in the church of Rome who have no familiarity with him, he lays out what his understanding of the Christian faith is. Paul seems to assume that at least a few members of the Roman church are familiar with Pharisaic Judaism. Similarly, Paul implies that some members of the church in Rome would likely already have views congenial to his perspective (15:14-15). Indeed, given the fact that the letter was preserved by its audience, we can infer that it received a warm welcome.
Probably the earliest internal challenge that Christianity faced was how a community of Jews and Gentiles theologically and practically worked. Most of the letter to the Roman Christians is concerned with how Jews and Gentiles, as a combined community of faith, are the result God’s saving activity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This was quite a challenge. Jesus did not teach his message to Gentile crowds if Matthew 15:24 is any indication. While Jesus may have disagreed with some of his educated contemporaries as to how one should faithfully observe the Instruction, there is no indication that Jesus was not himself an observant Jew. In the case of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is even exhorting people to be hyper-observant (see, for example, Matthew 5:20). However, witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection understood that Jesus’ message was to be taken to all people. Should then Gentiles be just as observant of the Torah as Jews? Today, we might think of the answer to that question as rather obvious, but it wasn’t to many in the early Christian movement, including Jesus’ disciple Peter (see Acts 15:1-31 and Galatians 2:11–14)
The principle that Paul seems to adopt is that those laws that set Jews apart from Gentiles are no longer binding. Indeed, it has been suggested by James Dunn that when Paul uses the phrase “works of the law,” he means those aspects of the Torah that made Jews uniquely, overtly, Jewish over against the Gentiles (see N.T. Wright’s discussion of this in Paul and His Recent Interpreters, pp. 90-96, especially p. 92). Still, this was an area of controversy in the early Christian movement. Paul even gets so mad at other Christians who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised, one of the aforementioned “works of the law,” that he hopes the knife slips and they castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12)!
As a result of the various debates in the early church about how to live as Christians, whether to observe the whole of Torah or not, Paul puts forward his understanding in Romans. This provides an important context in which, as we shall see, Romans 1:26-27 is to be properly understood.
Context – What was homosexual practice in Paul’s time?
Sex in general was not conceived of in ways we are accustomed to today. Most of the ancient world was very patriarchal in orientation. In classical mythology, at the edges of the known world, not only were there frightening monsters, but there were also Amazon women who were frightening because of their inversion of normal male-female relations. Many concepts we take for granted today with regard to sex were not fully understood in the ancient world. Agriculture in the ancient world often provided a framework for understanding human reproduction. When it comes to sexual intercourse, the male contribution, semen, is visible, while the female contribution, ova, is not. Thus it was as if the man planted his “seed” in the woman’s “soil” [interestingly, Genesis 2 subverts this idea by having the man created from the dirt and the woman created from the man]. This agricultural analogy clearly diminished the role of women to be passive receptacles. Indeed male-female sexual intercourse was understood to be the male dominating the female. In like manner, male homosexual acts were understood to be one male dominating, and thus feminizing, another male. This is especially the case with regard to Roman practices in the Apostle Paul’s day. In the larger Roman culture, homosexual relations were acceptable for citizens only if they were the penetrating partner, thus retaining their masculinity. As we will see, this is also an important context in which to understand what Paul was doing in Romans 1:26-27.
What texts was Paul drawing on in Romans?
Now we turn to Romans itself. The Pentateuch was the central scriptures, not only for the various iterations of Judaism of Paul’s day (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.), but had also been adopted by Christians as well. It may seem obvious, but it is worth mentioning, that there was no New Testament at the time of Paul’s writing. The earliest Christian document we have, that would eventually become part of the New Testament, is 1 Thessalonians, which Paul himself wrote! In any case, it would be fair to say that the remembered words of Jesus were considered authoritative, even authoritative in terms of Jesus’ interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the process of articulating his views of what a Christian community made of both Jews and Gentiles looks like, as one would naturally expect, Paul makes many references to the Pentateuch as well as to other authoritative texts (like works that came to be part of the Prophets and the Writings). There isn’t any kind of exact scripture quotation in Romans 1:26-27, but one may well ask what text or texts Paul is drawing on. The book of Leviticus contains a wide variety of rules and regulations, both religious and ethical. Some portions of the book contain laws of the sort that Paul finds have ongoing significance to the Christian community, and others that are no longer relevant.
One such example from Leviticus is the famous law of equal retribution (the lex talionis) found in Leviticus 24:19-21. This is alluded to in Romans 12:17-21. Here we have an example of Paul using Deuteronomy 32:35, Proverbs 25:21-22, and adding his own comment to basically invalidate the ongoing relevance of that Levitical passage in Christian communities. It is possible that in the writing of Romans 12:17-21, Paul may have had some very early form of the “M” and, or, “Q” source in mind that would eventually become Matthew 5:38-48 and, or, Luke 6:27-36. All this is to say that there is no nice and tidy principle Paul consistently uses to affirm or reject the ongoing relevance of certain points of the Law. Many times what Paul says and why he says it make sense, but you can’t reduce his method to only one principle.
While it has been debated whether Paul makes reference to Leviticus in Romans 1:26-27, it will be demonstrated that he almost certainly was. Leviticus 18:22 is often the verse people think of with reference to the condemnation of homosexual practice. It reads. “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice.” In the case of Romans 1:26-27 Paul actually has its chiastic parallel in mind, that of Leviticus 20:13.
If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable. They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads. – Leviticus 20:13
Let’s look at the two passages parallel to each other…
What is striking about the parallels is that Paul changes the Levitically prescribed punishment to absolutely nothing. Instead Paul claims that homosexual practice has its own intrinsic consequences. Leviticus 20:13 concluded with the statement, “They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.” Paul parallels this with the conclusion of Romans 1:27, “they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies.” Paul has completely eliminated the prescribed consequence for homosexual practice. Paul’s argument would seem to be reminiscent of Jesus’ method, in the Gospel of Matthew, of taking a saying from the Pentateuch and altering it. Jesus’ formula from the Sermon on the Mount reads, “You have heard that it was said…” “but I say to you…” Paul is instead paralleling the wording of the Levitical prohibition while he is altering it.
What reasons would Paul have to eliminate the punishment for homosexual practice? This is not an insignificant change to the Levitical prohibition, so one cannot simply assume that Paul is only restating the ongoing relevance of said prohibition. Paul does recognize that the community of faith is living within the Roman Empire and exhorts them to “place themselves under the authority of the government” (see Romans 13:1-5). So one can argue that since Leviticus was designed to operate within an Israelite or Judahite governmental context, and Christians live in a Roman political context that tolerated homosexual practice, the principle of submitting oneself to the authority of the government is what matters. However, I think it far and away more likely that Paul was following Jesus’ lead with being merciful and compassionate toward all people, including even one’s enemies (see the discussion of Paul’s abrogation of the lex talionis above).
At any rate, we will be looking at what Paul’s alteration of the Levitical prohibition may mean for today a little later. First, we may ask, so what? Paul may have eliminated the imposing of any consequences for homosexual practice, but what does it mean for Paul to have affirmed the ongoing relevance of the basic Levitical prohibition? For this we need to look at how homosexual practice was understood in Paul’s time when compared to how we understand it today.
Homosexual practice as Paul understood it at that time compared to today
One of the more difficult problems to overcome when reading any ancient document is our tendency to impute our understandings of the words we read back into the text. Another way to put it is that when we read scripture, we can often assume the text means what it means to us rather than what it meant to its original author. If we are going to be faithful interpreters of scripture, we need to look for what Paul meant in Romans, as best as that can be done, not merely what we think when we read Romans.
As has been discussed earlier, homosexual practice in the ancient world, like sex in general, had an element of domination/submission to it. Today we prize mutuality and equality with regard to sex. Women are now seen as equal partners with as much say as men when it comes to sex. At least that is the ideal to which our culture strives. This has in part helped to deconstruct “rape culture” in our day. There is still a lot more work to be done in that regard, but it is a far cry from how sex was understood in the ancient world.
A further complication is that, in the ancient world, no one conceived of anything like what we understand as “sexual orientation.” It was the French philosopher Michel Foucault who first put forward the striking claim that the homosexual, as a species of person, is a recent invention. Prior to 1870, according to Foucault, “sodomy was a category of forbidden acts” (see the History of Sexuality: An Introduction pp.42-44). The problem, of course, is that we may read our contemporary understandings back into the text. What Paul was talking about cannot for him have been conceived of as the condemnation of a class or species of person. Rather, the most likely object of Paul’s statements on the topic would have been the domination/submission manner in which the practice of homosexuality was understood in the ancient world.
One thing that Paul makes quite clear in Galatians 3:28 is that he sees all people as being equal, despite how the relationships may have been conceived of in the surrounding cultures of the ancient world. They valued one at the expense of the other. Free persons were seen as superior to slaves, men were seen as superior to women, and Jews (by virtue of following Torah—God’s laws—as God’s chosen people) saw themselves as superior to non-Jews. The practice of homosexuality would surely in this context have been seen by Paul as the devaluing, or dominating, of one human being by another. The penetrated partner becomes sexually objectified rather than being respected as an equal partner—someone who was fully human. That certainly sounds like a “degrading lust” that Paul refers to in Romans 1:26. As an aside, indeed it may be asked if one of the greatest dangers posed by the prevalence of pornography in the Western world is the objectification of sex and the potential transposition of that objectification onto the sexual partners of those addicted to pornography (is pornography destroying intimacy and mutuality in sex?).
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties with regard to making ancient sacred religious texts applicable in today’s world is that the rationale for prohibiting certain actions is not overtly stated. We are thus left to infer why some things were not allowed. Who knows why wearing clothes made from two kinds of material is forbidden (Leviticus 19:19b)? We can establish the context in which homosexual practice was understood in the ancient world, and assume that something to do with that was why it was prohibited, but we can’t know for sure. It may have been that Paul was simply following the traditional Levitical prohibition without himself finding a need to explain why homosexual practice needed to be prohibited. That is to say he may never have thought about it or found a reason to second-guess Leviticus on that matter. If God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai, presumably “because God said so” is within the realm of possibility. However, “because God said so” is clearly not sufficient for Paul in all cases, otherwise you would think he would still affirm the necessity of circumcision. We just don’t know for certain what the rationale was, if any, in the present case of Romans 1:26-27.
Today, as has been mentioned, the context of homosexuality is very different than it was in Paul’s day. There are LGBTQ folks who believe in mutually loving relationships. One needs no more evidence for this than the drive to legalize gay marriage. If homosexuality was reduced to only an act of one person’s domination over another, why would so many people want to get married? It is clear that the world has changed, and the context has changed, so it would make sense to ask if the maintenance of a prohibition from more than two-thousand years ago still has merit. It is impossible to argue that the societal context in which homosexual practice occurs has not changed. We have seen that for Paul, he saw that the work of God in Jesus Christ had changed the world of his day so much that it was time to re-evaluate whether many aspects of Torah observance needed to be maintained. That both Jews and Gentiles were coming together to form a new community pressed the need for such questions to be asked.
There are traditionalists who still affirm the ongoing relevance of Romans 1:26-27. What you most often find is that their presuppositions do not recognize the validity of the homosexual as a species of person. Put simply, they cannot, in many cases, conceive that it could be otherwise than just an act. If the Bible condemns a behavior, then it is understood to be only a behavior, and thus a homosexual is a person who is what he or she is by habit, not by nature. This results in many traditionalists being labeled as akin to a racist, when such labels make absolutely no sense to them and only appear to be an odd choice of an ad hominem. Most traditionalists I’ve known feel that the Bible generally prohibits a behavior because it is harmful to one or both participants, so opposition to homosexual practice does not stem from a type of homophobia or something like racism, rather it is a powerful conviction that those who engage in homosexual practice harm themselves. As was mentioned at the beginning, one side, this side, sees the debate as whether or not to condemn homosexual practice. Thus many traditionalists want nothing to do with condemning people.
Progressives generally note that LGBTQ folks are people deserving of the same rights and freedoms as anyone else. Since Paul cannot in any way be said to be addressing LGBTQ persons as persons, his affirmation of the Levitical prohibition doesn’t even apply. Perhaps it would make sense to say that Romans 1:26-27 might still be relevant if a heterosexual male were to have homosexual sex. In any case, it is thought by progressives that if Paul valued all people as being of equal sacred worth to God (again, Galatians 3:28), then today that principle must include LGBTQ folks as well. Of course many traditionalists have a hard time seeing that progressives have any respect for the Bible’s ethical exhortations, because for them it is about behavior not personhood. As was mentioned at the beginning, one side, this side, sees the debate as whether or not to affirm the full inclusion of LGBTQ people. Thus many progressives will work toward promoting loving and ethical contexts for the expression of one’s orientation, such as marriage, and absolutely not promoting what would be seen as immoral sexual practice like adultery or rape (in other words, what is true and good for heterosexual relationships is true and good for homosexual relationships).
Ironically, both traditionalists and progressives will often accuse each other of forsaking the Bible. If no more work is put into Biblical interpretation than a simple “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” it is easy to see how progressives might view traditionalists as being unwilling to do the hard work of interpretation, instead opting for whatever reading they find to be the easiest one that comes to mind in all cases. Are some traditionalists so self-obsessed, thinking they always have the right answers, that they don’t even need to justify their conclusions? But conversely, the plain meaning of the text wouldn’t seem to justify affirming LGBTQ persons in homosexual practice. Are progressives just inventing all sorts of clever reasons to avoid coming to a conclusion they don’t like, and thus practically forsaking the Bible for their ideologies?
Can this issue be resolved? Since both sides do not characterize the debate as being about the same thing (is it condemning homosexual practice or affirming LGBTQ persons?) they are often talking past each other. Human nature is, to an extent, socially constructed as well as having innate characteristics. Can we so easily assert that concepts like sexual orientation are no more than a socially constructed reality bearing no relation to what humans are by nature? Even if so, the socially constructed world of Paul’s day was ever changing and Paul saw reasons to change with it. The nature versus nurture debate is ongoing, and seems as if the two can never wholly be disentangled from each other. Is homosexuality an act or a species of person? For my part, I have come to the conclusion that the contemporary understanding of LGBTQ persons as persons capable of loving mutual relationships ought to be affirmed. Are there situations in which one person objectifies and dominates another person? Yes, I am sure of it, but these should not be acceptable no matter what context, be it heterosexual or homosexual. Instead, I believe that gay marriage encourages and allows loving and mutual relationships to flourish, and even places such positive relationships as the ideal.
Would Paul have allowed gay marriage within the church were he alive today? We have no way of knowing for sure, but Paul did see sexual desire as a sufficient reason in and of itself for marriage (1 Corinthians 7:9), so it cannot be ruled out. Paul, as has been mentioned, did eliminate the prescribed Levitical punishment for homosexual practice in Romans 1:27. If he did that as a means to accommodate living under an Empire that did not share Christian values, should Christians today oppose gay marriage? If the principle is to let the governing body allow what it is going to allow and for Christians to follow their own moral code, then it would seem pretty clear that this should be a non-issue even for the most conservative of traditionalists.
I think it is very important for both sides of the debate, at least those who engage in the discussion, to get a better picture of what each side is really saying. Hopefully it is now clear that there are some sophisticated interpretive issues with regard to Romans 1:26-27. It is not a case of one side or another forsaking Biblical authority. It is often many people talking past each other, but both sides out of a belief that they are working toward what would be best for all involved. Traditionalists see it as an issue of behavior, while progressives see it as an issue of personhood. Romans 1:26-27 may affirm the prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, but it is more complicated than it might seem at first. The original context of Romans 1:26-27 calls into question whether there are any similarities with that of the world today warranting the continuing affirmation of the prohibition. It is the view of the author that sufficient differences exist so that the text cannot be said to speak authoritatively to the contemporary situation. Put simply, what Paul said made sense for the time he wrote it, but it just doesn’t apply to what we find today. Your mileage may vary, but try to respect those who see it differently. If you talk to them, be aware that they may not be using the same words the way you do—is a homosexual a species of person or someone who performs certain acts? Speak the truth in love.
For further reading…
First, I have written another post, Jesus Never Said Anything About That, with regard to what Jesus said on the topic of homosexuality (i.e. nothing), and what that really means for the debate. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah does come up in Jesus’ rhetoric, so I look at how Jesus uses it.
I mentioned Paul and His Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright above.
It was published by Fortress Press in 2015. ISBN: 9780800699642.
I also mentioned Michel Foucault’s work.
The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction was published by an imprint of Random House in 1978. The current version in print has the same ISBN as the above copy (ISBN:9780679724698), though with a different cover design. If you would rather get a feel for Foucault’s work as a whole, you may wish to check out The Foucault Reader edited by Paul Rabinow, also published by an imprint of Random House. In addition, The Foucault Reader contains the relevant section from The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction that I reference above on pp. 322-323.
If you would like to find a good book explaining what both sides of the debate believe, probably the best two, in my opinion of course, are Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers for the progressive position and The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert A.J. Gagnon for the traditionalist view.
Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality (Revised and Expanded Edition) was published by Westminster/John Knox Press in 2009. ISBN: 9780664233976. The Bible and Homosexual Practice was published by Abingdon Press in 2001. ISBN: 9780687084135. It is currently available in paperback with the ISBN: 9780687022793.
© 2017 Lee Karl Palo