The New Testament texts
Paul’s Ridicule of Males Having Sex with Each Other
Romans 1: 25-27
25They willfully diminished the true character of God and worshiped and waited upon creatures rather than the creator, the one who should be blessed into the ages. Amen.
26Because of this, God abandoned them to their to passions of dishonor: even their females deliberately disregarded nature’s intention for their bodies and did things that deviated from their reproductive roles.
27And likewise the men also neglected and ignored nature’s intention for the female body, and got themselves all kindled up in lust toward other males: males with males, behaving sexually against our customs. And they were punished because they wandered away, disregarding nature’s rules.
According to many Christians, Romans 1: 25-27 is the most compelling reason for asserting that the Bible prohibits homosexuality. Some dismiss the Old Testament texts on the subject because they are…well…Old Testament texts. And the injunctions of 2 Corinthians and 1 Timothy can be dismissed as being mistranslations. But there remains Paul’s clear disdain of same gender sexual activity in Romans 1. How can anyone be faithful to what Paul writes in Romans 1 and condone same gender sex?
The only way to be faithful to any biblical text is to read it within its context. What seems to be a clear statement of God’s will, when read out of context, often has an entirely different meaning when its full context is recovered. This is the case for Romans 1: 25-27. In order to understand what this text is really saying, we need to ask the following questions: What was the full book of Romans about? What literary devices was Paul using in Romans 1? What did the words mean in the original Greek? When Paul refers to “nature,” what did he mean? How do these verses fit into Paul’s major teachings about faith, wickedness, and righteousness, the topics that are the essence of his epistle to the Romans? And finally, who was Paul?
Unfortunately, too many people don’t want to study this hard in order to find out the true meaning of Romans 1: 25-27. They simply want to extract these verses from their context and make them mean what they want them to mean. Scripture deserves better than that from Christians.
In examining the context of Romans 1: 25-27, we begin by asking about Paul. From the various letters he wrote, we know that his urgent mission in life was to connect people with God. He saw himself as a matchmaker, believing that those who are in touch with God will find life more gratifying and make the world more just.
Paul’s main themes in Romans were faith, wickedness, and righteousness. And he had a peculiar take on each of these subjects. He understood faith as the means by which people connect with God. After all, it can’t be easy to connect with a being who is a spirit full of mystery. Connecting with God requires imagination, an element of all religions. Religious faith is a disciplined imagination in which we hypothesize future scenarios based merely on ancient stories, traditions, and promises.
Faith comes in handy in all aspects of our lives…whenever we are beset with uncertainties and gaps in our knowledge. It is a cognitive risk, necessary for imagining truths that the eye cannot see nor the mind calculate. Faith frees us to act boldly, enter new relationships, take on a different line of work, migrate to another place… Without faith, we would be too stupefied to decide anything.
An act of faith always starts with some object: a person, a thing, a statement, a system… And once one has an object of faith, the imagining can begin. Each object of faith comes alive in the imagination, often changing us. Through faith, we become obedient to the imperatives that emerge in the imagination. The objects of our faith affect others. And we often know only later whether our faith has been misplaced or not.
When it comes to approaching the mysteries of God, many people put their faith in a specific religion: a denomination, or a religious leader; sometimes a ritual. For others, the way to approach God is to put one’s faith in nature. You cannot even be an atheist without placing your faith in some sort of uncertain assumption.
And it is here that we get to a major thesis Paul makes in Romans: he asserts that faith in a particular religion is more likely to lead people away from God than toward. Paul’s critique of religions is scathing. His epistle to the Romans censures Judaism, Christianity, and nature religions. In Romans 1, Paul points to the ways that a misplaced faith in a pagan ritual leads to injury and alienation. And then in chapters 2-11, he argues that traditional Judaism and Christianity can destroy not only our relationship with God, but our relationships with one another. For Paul, the only reliable object of faith is a person: Jesus Christ. Not even direct quotes from the Bible can be trusted, according to Paul. Jesus alone, as an object of faith, has the power to bestow God’s grace and salvation on the world.
The writings about homosexual behavior appear in the section where Paul is constructing an argument about how worshipping something in nature can lead people into a lie about God. Nature doesn’t always deceive us in regard to the character and will of God. But when we begin to idolize the various products of creation, we can lose sight of the creator. For example, when we put our faith in planets and stars, particular animals, or acts of sex…those things may transform us, but Paul argues that they will only undermine our relationships with God and each other.
Wickedness and righteousness are major themes of Romans. Righteousness, throughout the Bible, is always defined as a relationship that is good and growing. A righteous person is one who relates well to others, including God. One does not become righteous by having the correct beliefs or by conforming perfectly to the rules. You can be right without being righteous.In order to be righteous, you have to respect and love others. It takes two or more to berighteous. Ironically, being right too often leads to self-righteousness, a deadly form of wickedness. For Paul, things that are wicked are those actions and attitudes that damage relationships.
Paul argues that both righteousness and wickedness are the consequences of how we think. Faulty thinking leads to wickedness; sound thinking leads to righteousness. The imagination we employ in crafting our faith can be either faulty or sound. The crux of Romans is this: faulty thinking leads to misplaced faith…which leads to broken lives…which leads to a tortured world, which is full of wickedness.
In Romans 1: 25-27, Paul is obviously writing about some sort of homosexual activity. A careful reading of the Greek text will show that he is thinking about some sort orgy in a pagan temple: with homosexual acts being performed as offerings to the gods. He specifically mentions that this activity is worship (es-e-bas’-thae-san) and a form of priestly service (e-lat’-rue-san) to those gods. In Romans 1, Paul avoids using the specific Greek terms that referred to pederasty, male rape, kept boys, or mutual intimacy.
Paul writes about both men and women who are “disregarding nature’s rules.” What does he mean by this? From his own statement, two things are clear. First, he assumes that males having sex with males does not occur in nature. And second, Paul assumes that nature has restricted the female body to be a vessel for semen, an incubator for fetuses, and a dispenser of breast milk…and that any other use of the female body is “against nature.” If Paul ever imagined that the female body might also have spiritual and social value…providing women with agency, pleasure, or adventure…he never got around to writing it down.
Paul obviously had no inkling of modern science and the fact that homosexual behavior is actually “natural” for about 5-10% of the human population. Paul would have been very curious to know what we know now: that God has simply created some folks who are wired to enjoy same gender intimacy. Nor was Paul ever exposed to those who advocated justice and joy regarding women and their bodies. Because he was one untimely born, the assumptions he makes about nature have long been discredited.
What are we to do then with his writings, particularly when they are laced with erroneous ideas about nature? In order to answer that question, we need to focus on how Paul builds his arguments. In Romans 1, he lays out 1) some preliminary assumptions (about nature), 2) evidence (of homosexual temple orgies), and 3) a conclusion (that putting one’s faith in male/male sex orgies is not a valid pathway into a relationship with God). It is possible to find value in the conclusion of an argument…even if the preliminary premise is off. Most people today would readily agree with Paul’s conclusion. And remember, Paul’s foundational teachings are found in his conclusions, not the preliminary premises he employs when setting up his arguments.
Paul concludes in these verses that enormous suffering is unleashed whenever a society has an “anything goes” attitude toward sexual behavior. He also concludes that disaster awaits those who disrespect nature. These days, what Paul calls “disregarding nature’s rules,” we call “denial of science.” Paul never builds an argument in Romans in order to condemn homosexuality. He does unwittingly use a (now) discredited premise about homosexuality and nature, but it is only so that he can craft a warning about what it means to put our faith in something false. His sole desire in Romans is to introduce the spirit of Jesus into the world so that people will not hurt each other through their wickedness. How ironic it is then, that by parroting Paul, some Christians unleash enormous injustices and incivilities against LGBTQ+ persons.
Paul is right to bring a critical eye to human sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual. He does this by challenging us to see the connection between how we think–and how we hurt others. Sexual behavior from any sexual orientation can be the source of dehumanizing degradations. Paul leads us to be truly righteous when he challenges us to critique heartless sex and discern the mentalities that promote it.
After all, what kind of thought process leads one into thinking that temple prostitution is a good idea? Which ideas allow us to suppose that it is jolly fine if we detach love from sex, or make a commodity out of the human body, or sadistically enjoy the physical pain and mental humiliation of another person? Furthermore, Paul’s work in Romans challenges us to ponder what kind of thought process would lead one to think that God favors wars…or walls…or want? When Christians cheer nationalism, vote for white supremacists, ignore an epidemic of gun deaths, deny deadly climate change, dehumanize immigrants, and say of the sick, “I am not my brother’s keeper,”…Paul’s epistle to the Romans prompts the whole world to ask, “In what idols have Christians misplaced their precious faith?” The hatred and abuse that religious people pour out upon LGBTQ+ persons is exactly what the book of Romans was written to challenge. How ironic it is that a sliver of Romans has become history’s most quoted scripture in support of such evil.
Finally, Romans as a whole argues that it is not behavior that keeps us apart from God. God can readily neutralize our destructive behaviors through a mysterious mix of divine sanctification, punishment, and forgiveness. Paul makes that point over and over in his epistle. The problem, Paul asserts, is that it is our thinking that stands in the way of a righteous relationship with God. The villain, ironically, is self-righteous thinking, the opposite of righteousness. Paul’s basic message to the Romans still stands: only when we are transformed by the renewal of our minds, not the transformation of our sexual orientation, can we be at one with God…and experience the joy of the gospel…and the gifts of his multi-faceted salvations.
Paul’s list of people who forfeit their place in God’s Kingdom
I Corinthians 6: 9-10
9Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s Kingdom? Do not be deceived: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, the men who have sex with male prostitutes,
10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers…none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
In this passage, it is necessary for us to translate the Greek words accurately. Three sex-related Greek words are used in these verses. Pornia (translated here as ‘fornicators’) specifically refers to commercial sex, treating the human body as a sexual commodity. Malakoi (translated ‘prostitutes’) is a male who sells his body (to men or women). We might more accurately translate this word as gigolo. Arsenokoitai is sometimes mistranslated ‘sodomites.’ Ironically, those who use the word “sodomite” in translating this verse are not even using it in the biblical meaning of sodomite (which is a person who treats the poor badly) but rather the medieval meaning of sodomite (the ‘male’ role in anal intercourse). The primary use of “malakoi” in ancient literature refers to the “john” who purchases the services of a male prostitute. A careful study of the Greek language, in which Corinthians was written, will indicate that none of the three sex-related words in this passage has any cultural equivalence to gay and lesbian persons today who simply seek affirmation for their own free and loving relationships.
To not inherit the Kingdom of God goes back to an issue fundamental to the teachings of Jesus. If the most important command in the Kingdom of God is two-fold: to love God and to love one’s neighbor, then the way one forfeited a place in the kingdom was to treat one’s neighbor badly, including such things that Christians inflict on LGBTQIA+ persons: malice, gossip, slander, heartlessness, ruthlessness…
Turning sex into a commodity: Paul is against it
I Timothy 1: 9-10
“…9the law is laid down not for the innocent but for
The lawless and disobedient,
The godless and sinful and unholy and profane
For those who kill their father their mother and others
10For fornicators, gigolos, slave traders
For liars, perjurers,
And whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God…”
Paul has just listed 14 things that can go wrong in a person’s behavior, and a careful literary analysis of his lists shows that these 14 sins are arranged in four different groups.
The first group consists of those who are antagonistic to all rules: the lawless and disobedient. The second group consists of those who specifically disregard God: the godless, sinful, unholy, and profane.
The third group consists of those categories from the Greco-Roman world that constituted the commercial, violent, and loveless sex. Again, pay attention to the original Greek words and their most accurate translations: pornia (literally meaning those who practice loveless and non-relational sex , arsenokoitai, (literally those who engage in prostitution,) and andrapodistai, (literally slave traders, a major supplier of human beings offered up for sexual abuse.)
The fourth group of sins Paul lists include those who do not tell the truth: liars and perjurers.
Again, nothing in Paul’s list comes even close to resembling those individuals today who think of themselves as gay, lesbian our bi-sexual: individuals and couples who are our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, our neighbors, and oftenour fellow Christians.
Some concluding thoughts about Paul
Keep in mind that Paul only knew of slaves who were humiliated and tortured and driven sometimes to death because of legally permissible male on male rape. Paul only knew of young boys who were shamelessly molested by older men as a sign of the older man’s elite status. Paul only knew of men who cynically turned their bodies into a commodity and took up a soulless sexuality of prostitution. What he did know of, he condemned, and rightly so!
There were so many things that Paul didn’t know: He didn’t know that his writings would be taken literally by Christians who spoke other languages and lived in other times. He knew nothing of the psychology and the biology of human sexual orientation. He did not know that at least 5% of the human population is born with a same sex orientation. He had no conception that sexual affirmation and pleasure is integral to mental health. He had no imagination to see that a same sex couple could reflect all the qualities of love and joy and justice and generosity and goodness as any heterosexual couple. In Paul’s world, they did not know that sometimes being true to what is natural and what is God-created might mean being true to one’s love for a same sex partner. Paul was brilliant, and I wish he were my pastor. But like anything that any pastor says, we should be ready to test the specific applications of the message.
Comparing what Paul had in mind and what wewrestle with is like comparing apples to oranges. Or more specifically, it is like comparing a street gang to the Optimist Club. Of course Paul condemned homosexuality: as he knew it. If all we knew was limited to what Paul knew, we too would assert his outrage.
A few other biblical concepts worth adding to the conversation
I want to mention four other biblical concepts that are germane to our conversation.
First, is the concept of human sexuality. Every human being is created by God with sexuality. That sexuality is spiritual, physical, emotional, and social in its completeness and complexity. And the book of Genesis affirms the utter goodness and joy and freedom of our God given sexuality. In creation, no one, despite a world of diversity and non-conformity …no one is denied the opportunity of sexual expression and pleasure. This is our clearest picture of what God really wants from the human race.
Second is the concept of sin. Sin is fundamentally our failure to be who God created us to be. Eve’s temptation was when she attempted to be like God. You know: the one who makes rules for other people to follow. And after Adam and Eve, sin really takes off in the Bible. Instead of people remembering that they were created in the image of God, we began to think that we are God. Instead of standing openly before each other unashamed, we began to blame and humiliate and hurt each other. Instead of living together in harmony, we began to judge each other and obsess over our differences. We began to attack and abuse and hate each other. Sin entered the world. And in Romans, where Paul gives us a graduate seminar on the nature of sin, we see that it has infiltrated religion itself, God’s own people, as we self-righteously judge and condemn all those who merely threaten or offend us personally.
Third is the biblical concept of celibacy. Some Christians say that it is okay to have homosexual feelings as long as one doesn’t act on those feelings. Celibacy in the Bible is the relinquishment of one’s rights to ever have sex with another person. In I Corinthians, Paul praises celibacy. But he also realizes that celibacy is a call of God, given only to a few. Those who “burn,” Paul writes, should find a loving covenant partner in order to remain righteous. If a person of homosexual orientation is not called to celibacy, and if a person of homosexual orientation is not gifted by the Holy Spirit with powers to refrain from sexual activity, then it is simply inhumane and sinful for anyone in the church to require them to be celibate…or to judge a non-celibate person as being too ungodly to lead the church, or be in it.
The fourth biblical concept is circumcision, symbolic of sexual discipline. While in favor of the symbolism of circumcision, the Bible abhors castration. In practice, the church’s position against gays and lesbians is really about castration: not surgical or chemical castration, but spiritual castration. The church’s traditional treatment of gays and lesbians is vicious, and it is not what Jesus would do, who by the way, never mentions the subject.
Scholarly summary of Biblical teachings
In summary, teachers who cite the Bible in order to condemn today’s loving, intimate, freely consenting same gender couples are using the Bible unfaithfully and illegitimately, twisting those texts to accommodate their own political and psychological preferences. To quote Jesus, (in context,) “You abandon the commandment of God (love) in order to hold to human tradition. (Mark 7:8)
On the other hand, there is no place in the Bible that specifically affirms non-heterosexual sex, as we know it. Scripture is simply silent on that subject, and the authors of the Bible (including the Holy Spirit) have left us to work it out ourselves, surely trusting we will extrapolate the basic message of Jesus, love your neighbor, love your enemy, into how we treat those who unsettle us.