Unnatural Acts in Romans 1:26-27
Our last text is also the one that seems to be the clearest condemnation of homosexual activity. Of all verses in the Bible, it is the only one which could possibly refer to lesbians in the original language. There are no words that are difficult to translate, even if we might need to look at interpretation and meaning in context, and the passage is clearly part of the new covenant that applies to Christians. This single verse has stopped many Christians from affirming their LGBT brothers and sisters in relationships, from conservative Christian ethicist scholar William Hays to myself for a long time.
Yet, by now you may agree with me that many texts which on the surface seem clear and unambiguous can take on new meanings and alternative valid interpretations as we study them carefully. Let’s do one more word study on a peripheral term, and then spend some time trying to figure out what the apostle Paul is teaching his readers (and through that, us). Here are the questions:
Laying aside our prior assumptions, what could Paul be describing as natural and unnatural intercourse?
What is Paul teaching in Romans overall?
What is the intent of these verses, and of the immediate passage in the historic context?
A pivotal word in the Romans text is physikós (φυσικός 5446) which is unambiguously translated as “natural” according to Strong’s: “‘physical’, i.e. (by implication) instinctive:—natural.” However, what does “natural” describe in Paul’s context? For this we need to look at the root word physis (φυσικός 5449).
Understandings of physis in ancient Rome
Strong's Exhaustive Concordance defines physis as: "nature. growth (by germination or expansion), i.e. (by implication) natural production (lineal descent); by extension, a genus or sort; figuratively, native disposition, constitution or usage — (man-)kind, nature(-al)."
Thayer's Greek Lexicon is a little more detailed:
- the nature of things, the force, laws, order, of nature; as opposed to what is monstrous, abnormal, perverse: that which is contrary to nature's laws, against nature; as opposed to what has been produced by the art of man: the natural branches, i. e. branches by the operation of nature, , contrasted with what is contrary to the plan of nature; as opposed to what is imaginary or fictitious: "who are gods not by nature, but according to the mistaken opinion of the Gentiles"; nature, i. e. natural sense, native conviction or knowledge, as opposed to what is learned by instruction and accomplished by training or prescribed by law, guided by their natural sense of what is right and proper
- birth, physical origin ("who by birth is 'uncircumcised' or a Gentile")
- a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature
- the sum of innate properties and powers by which one person differs from others, distinctive native peculiarities, natural characteristics
We can also see how it was used in the classical Greek literature context in the Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Dictionary:
- Origin: of persons, birth (opposite of adoption); growth
- Natural form:
- The natural form or constitution of a person or thing as the result of growth
- Nature, constitution
- Form or appearance, either in mind or outward form
- Medical: constitution or temperament, natural place or position of a bone or joint
- Of the mind: one's nature or character, instinct in animals
- Natural weakness, "i.e. wouldn't provoke a stone"
- Regular order of nature: growing naturally, a traitor by nature, by nature, naturally
- In philosophy:
- "Nature" personified as an originating power, the principle of growth in the universe, the inner fire which causes preservation and growth in plants and animals
- Elementary substance, atoms
- The creation, i.e. heaven and earth, light and darkness, etc.
- Concrete identity: Creature, mankind, womankind, of plants or material substances
- Species: kind, sort, species, natural group or class of plants
- Sex: the characteristic of sex, esp. of the female organ, of the testes
The description of intercourse as “natural” then has a variety of possible interpretations. It could be used to designate:
- Intercourse which is consistent with the created order.
- Intercourse for procreation only (excluding anal or oral sex, masturbation, or use of any contraception methods).
- Intercourse which does not conform to cultural standards or tradition.
- Intercourse which is against the individual characteristics of a person.
Dr. James V. Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary and author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality, points out that the idea of “nature” as described here is a Greek concept rather than a Hebrew one. The word physis cannot be found in the Greek version of the Tanakh, and it only began to appear in later Jewish writings around 200 BCE as the Hebrews encountered Greek philosophy. In particular, use of this word came as Jewish philosophers began engaging with Stoicism, so to understand how Paul would have used this word we’d need to know a little about how the Stoics thought of physis.
The Stoic philosophy of nature
Stoicism is a Greek school of philosophy originating with Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE. By the first century, it had become the most popular worldview amongst the educated elite in the Greco-Roman world and remained so for several centuries. We know that the Apostle Paul was familiar enough with Stoicism to have long debates with philosophers in Athens:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons [familiar with Scripture], and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there [engaging with Greeks]. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him.
— Acts 17:16-18a
It would make sense for him to use Greek philosophical concepts for both the Gentiles and the Jews in his church audience who were living in the heart of Rome. His letter begins with an insistence that God’s truth is revealed outside of Scripture as well, knowing that he can’t count on the same level of familiarity with the sacred texts to make his points in this context.
For Stoics, “living in agreement with nature” is the means to flourishing or living well in virtue which for them is the ultimate goal of human life. They recognized the instinctual characteristics of the plant and animal world but insisted that man’s unique ability of reasoning was our true nature. They sought to overcome thoughtless passions which control us so we may gain mastery over our instincts and live with purpose and control. They believed that we could study the world and understand what it means to be in harmony with the cosmic nature.
Paul begins his letter with this very theme:
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
— Romans 1:20
He goes on to say that the wicked have not honored God in spite of his revelation through creation but chose instead to follow idols and thereby were given over to be controlled by their “degrading passions” (1:26). Stoics thought of passion very differently than we often do today. Rather than thinking of a “passionate” person as being one who is fully alive as themselves, they considered them negatively “passive”—under the control of something outside themselves. It was an excess of passion that was the problem for both Greek and Jewish philosophers like Philo. Stoics seek harmony, balance, and self-control.
In Roman society, there was suspicion of anyone who indulged too much in human appetites. “Unnatural intercourse” could describe someone who had no self-discipline or restraint but was controlled by the “lusts of their hearts” (1:24). It was a common understanding in Roman society that for many men, wives were for generating progeny and adulterous male or female love affairs were for sexual fulfillment. Rather than be content in their marriages, they would be controlled by their passions toward affairs and orgies.
Dr. Brownson suggests that by cross-referencing both the works of Paul and the larger body of Stoic literature we’ll end up with three complementary uses of “nature” which combine together for a full vision of the word. These three are:
- Individual disposition: do what comes naturally to you as a unique person.
- Social flourishing: living for communal well-being, with agreed on values and social conventions.
- Harmony with creation: living according to natural human patterns and needs.
Let’s keep these three elements of nature in mind as we look further into how Paul uses the word in his writing.
How is nature used throughout the New Testament?
Unlike in the Greek translation of the Tanakh, Paul and other New Testament writers use physis in a number of ways (English translation indicated in bold):
- Romans 2:14 – "When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively [by nature] what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.”
- Romans 2:27 – "Then those who are 'uncircumcised by nature' [not born into the people identified by "circumcision": the Jews] but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law."
- Romans 11:22 – "For if God did not spare the natural branches [unbelievers from Israel], perhaps he will not spare you."
- Romans 11:24 – "For if you [Gentiles] have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree [Jewish promise], how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree."
- 1 Corinthians 11:13-15 – "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering."
- Galatians 2:15 – "We ourselves are Jews by birth [nature] and not 'Gentile sinners'."
- Galatians 4:8 – "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods."
- Ephesians 2:3 – "All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath [impulse, passions, anger], like everyone else."
- James 3:7-8 – "For every species [nature] of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species [nature], but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison."
- 2 Peter 1:4 – "Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature."
What can we learn from These uses of the word Nature?
We can see the following meanings used in the verses above:
- An inborn conscience (“the Law within our hearts”).
- Birthright or genetic origin of those born as Jews.
- Cultural convention, e.g. hair lengths for men and women.
- The divine nature of God as contrasted to that of the world which is corrupted by “lust, impulse, passions, anger” [wrath].
- Created species: referring to both animals and man.
Other than the reference to hair length, all of these have to do with innate created characteristics that cannot be chosen. Our species, birthright, and natural inclinations are part of how God created us and desires us to participate in, contrasted to the corruption that comes from the world through lust.
Stoic nature principle one: Individual Disposition
Looking at the principles of nature for Stoics, let’s look at how individual disposition might be considered in this context. This first concept focuses on a unique person with particular needs and interests. While there are both communal and universal components to nature, Stoicism also takes into account the variations among human beings.
Let’s look back at the very core verses of the passage we’re currently studying with this meaning in mind:
Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.
— Romans 1:26b-27a
A focused reading of this sentence specifically describes women and men apparently choosing to exchange or give up intercourse that came naturally to them for something that is unnatural. Now that we know Paul is most likely referencing the common understanding of Stoic principles, his audience might well understand this word to have an individual disposition aspect to it. If at least part of his meaning is contained within this concept then it does not line up well with the modern traditional position. There seems to be a choice here, which is not the experience that our gay brothers and sisters describe. In fact, choosing against what gay individuals understand to be their unchosen nature from birth would be for them to enter into opposite-sex relationships.
If we accept as true that being gay is part of the diversity of God’s created order, then this is a logically supportable reading even as it doesn’t fully explain away the assumed condemnation satisfactorily. Let’s look at the other two aspects of Stoic nature.
Stoic nature principle two: Social Convention
When I think of “natural” and “unnatural” acts in my language and culture, I immediately think of things that are against the created order. However, remember that in the Greek context this could have more a “custom” or “normal” connotation. We have examples of describing someone as having an “unnatural” stomach ache because it was particularly painful and outside “normal” experience, or using the word to describe social or cultural conventions.
Paul writes in the first letter to the Corinthians how “nature [physis] itself teaches you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). I’ve always been puzzled by this statement. It seems to me that the created “nature” of my hair is that it would be quite long if I didn’t cut it. It makes more sense if Paul is talking nature in the Stoic sense of a cultural standard, as it existed in the 1st-century Greco-Roman context.
After all, those Hebrews who were dedicated to God’s service as Nazarites several centuries before this period were specifically commanded to keep their hair long, and Paul himself took a Nazarite vow for a time. Apparently, the expectation of how to honor God with your hairstyle seems to change with the culture.
In contrast to earlier Semitic cultures, 1st-century Roman gender roles expected short hair for men and long hair for women. Elaborate hairstyles emphasized both the erotic nature of women’s hair in their society, as well as showed off how wealthy one was (demonstrating how many hours you could afford to spend having it groomed daily). These conventions are reflected in other epistles, requiring women to wear veils and forbidding shaved heads (1 Corinthians 11:15) and cautioning against elaborate hairstyles (1 Peter 3:3).
Men who wore their hair long or styled like women could be considered either shamefully (“degrading”) effeminate (possibly labeled malikos) or overly sensual and controlled by their passions. Either would be “unnatural” for their society.
While it’s true that to be in relationship or have sex with the same gender has long been considered “unnatural” in western societies (though scholars debate how universal this really has been through the centuries), having this aspect of Stoic physis in mind does not support the traditional condemnation of same-sex relationships for all time. Now that we’re recognizing the general principle that 5-10% of the earth’s population of humans has always been drawn to the same gender from birth, we may wonder just how much of our theology around gender roles and sexual orientation has come from social convention of a given time rather than eternal principles of nature.
For Paul to condemn at least some same-sex relationships at least partially on the grounds of cultural convention at the time is something that we might today see in the same light as his writings against long hair for men. We might consider if there is an underlying principle that we can benefit from while understanding that the actual instruction came out of his human context in first-century Roman culture.
Stoic nature principle three: Human Nature
The final aspect of Stoic physis to consider is the universal human order of creation. One of the most common assumptions in conservative circles is that Paul must be referring to homosexuality being uniformly “unnatural” in God’s creation. And in fact, this was a common and unchallenged belief until the last few decades.
Today researchers tell us that same-gender sexual attraction, sexual activity, and even life-long pairing is found consistently throughout the created world. Biologist, linguist and author Dr. Bruce Bagemihl describes studies of over 450 different species engaging in same-gender sexual activity in his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. So far no species that reproduces sexually has been observed to be exclusively heterosexual. This publication was cited by the American Psychiatric Association and other groups in their successful efforts to strike down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas before the Supreme Court.
Here are a few examples outside the human species:
- Approximately 10% of rams mate exclusively with other male sheep. 20% more are bisexual and 15% asexual. Studies have shown these preferences are consistent regardless of access to genders or efforts to change it.
- One-quarter of all black swan couplings are between males, who will steal eggs from other nests and raise the chicks. Cygnets raised in these pairings have a better rate of survival than in heterosexual swan couples.
- Penguins have been observed to create permanent same-sex pairings since 1911, although that early study was so shocking to the culture at the time that the researchers translated it into Greek and passed it around in secret for the next 100 hundred years (finally published in 2012)!
- A huge variety of species have same-gender sex without exclusive pairing. For primates such as bonobos and Japanese macaques and other mammals like giraffes the majority of encounters are same-sex liaisons (lesbian and gay, respectively).
It is impossible to claim that homosexual activity is not part of natural creation from these studies. Sex is used across the created world for procreation, companionship, peace-making, domination, and social cohesion in all combinations of genders. is includes both promiscuous and random sex, and exclusive monogamous pairings depending on species. Humans are no exception either in variety of orientation or in particular forms of sexual coupling.
I am not proposing that we should look to animals for sexual ethics. However, it is important to recognize that homosexuality is a normal innate pattern throughout creation. This would not necessarily be a concept that Paul was familiar with because it was not a common idea in the first century (though not completely unknown). If you recall our examples in the 2nd chapter of this book, remember that Scripture often reflects the scientific understanding of the age in which it was written, and it would not be out of the normal pattern for Paul to describe sexual relationships according to the norm he knew at the time.
There is one more element to the Stoic vision of physis in the created order aspect which might be reflected in this passage. Both the Jewish Philo and the Roman Cicero emphasized procreation as an essential part of sexuality. They considered it natural to propagate the species and therefore might call any sexual act which would not produce progeny unnatural. This would include masturbation, anal or oral sex with any gender, or even sex with contraception in any form. This would not necessarily mean that these acts were “immoral”, but they would be “unnatural” for the intent of procreation.
On this note, let’s look at this line one more time: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural...” (Romans 1:26b) While the initial read in connection to the rest of the sentence immediately makes most conservatives think that this is the only verse in the entire Bible which condemns lesbian relationships, note that a careful read does not say that women were having sex with other women. It simply says that they had exchanged “natural” for “unnatural” intercourse. According to Dr. Brownson, for the first few hundred years of the church, this verse was understood to condemn all sex acts not considered “normal”, but no one thought it had anything specific to do with lesbians. For the purposes of the culture, this could have been any sex act which would not produce children.
Once again, today most of us in our society would not condemn every sex act which does not produce children as “unnatural”. Contraception of various forms, from natural rhythm methods to pills or condoms, are considered a normal and healthy practice within most Christian marriages. Now that we don’t think male sperm contains the entirety of a human being the way people did until the 1870’s, we no longer consider non-procreative ejaculation in the same vein as aborting children.
We also know much more about procreation and sexuality and have more diverse marriages already. A National Center for Health Statistics report from 2013 shows that 6% of married women ages 15-44 are infertile and 12% have "impaired fecundity" which makes conceiving and carrying to term very difficult. There are similar numbers for men. We do not prevent them from marrying even though we know there is no chance they will have children. Others go through radiation for cancer treatments, or are post-menopausal at marriage, or choose not to have children with permanent contraception, or any number of different scenarios which prohibit natural childbirth as an outcome of sexual intercourse. In addition, we have more need for adoptions than we have couples willing to adopt, and we’re in no danger of dying out as a species due to lack of procreation.
I do not believe we can condemn same-sex relationships only on the grounds that they are inherently non-procreative when we encourage similar heterosexual relationships for love and companionship.
While the word physikós is clearly translated into English as describing things which are according to physis, I think we’ve been able to see that the typical interpretation of the word in our current context may not match that of Paul’s original audience. Once we look at this passage through the lens of the shared understanding of Stoicism Paul would have relied on to give him access to speak into the culture, we may see that applying those same three lenses today may lead us to different conclusions.:
- Now that we know, unlike the 1st-century population, that one aspect of individually created disposition is sexual orientation, it could be seen as natural for some people to prefer same-sex relationships.
- Now that social conventions are changing, it is no longer so against cultural norms to have miss-matched gender role hairstyles or to be gay.
- Now that we understand that same-sex relations are natural for the entirety of the studied creation and we are generally comfortable having sex which will not lead directly to new progeny, sex outside of unprotected heterosexual vaginal intercourse is no longer called unnatural.
One aspect of nature from Stoicism might still apply today, however. At the beginning of this section, you may recall that we briefly covered the philosophy’s suspicion of and disdain for uncontrolled passions and lusts. At the root, Stoics thought that developing self-restraint, contentment with what you have, and avoiding being controlled by your desires were key to the good life.
While many Romans did not see anything inherently harmful about same-sex relationships, they looked with disdain on those men who did not act with restraint and moderation in their sexuality. They might criticize men seeking male lovers simply because these relationships were typically adulterous, in addition to their marriage to a woman, and a sign that the man could not control his lusts. Many first century writers, both Greo-Roman and Judeo-Christian, saw the desire for same-sex relationships as an uncontrolled excess of the same sexual desire that a man had for his wife, rather than of a different order entirely:
The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he fonds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given—in fact, too utterly feminine— and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure.
— Dio Chrysostom, 1st-century Greek philosopher
Note the misogyny inherent in this idea that the love of a woman is too easy to obtain, and that it is natural for a man who cannot control his “appetite” sexually to seek a challenge in obtaining a male lover. The condemnation is not of same-sex relations in general, but of a lack of self-control and restraint.
We as Christians agree that we are called to seek transformation in Christ away from the temptations of the world to indulge in harmful lusts. We may affirm this aspect of Paul’s shared emphasis with the Stoics while coming to a new understanding of how not all same-sex relationships come from an excess of lust and uncontrolled passions.
We’ve covered this one word in detail, but there is far more in the passage than nature. Let’s continue on to the broader context.
Putting the Verses into Context: The Epistle to the Romans
The book of Romans is the central book in some schools of theology. It's certainly very important for our Christian faith, and it's been studied and written about by prominent theologians for centuries. In other words, there's no way I can do the entire book justice here, yet I think we have to know more about the intent of the epistle to understand our central verses properly.
Please bear in mind that my reading of the book may be quite different from your background since there so many strong viewpoints on it. Rest assured that I did not come up with all this myself. I’ve studied a variety of viewpoints in addition to my own readings of the text. Regardless, maybe there's something new here that could add to your understanding in general anyway, as a side benefit to our exploration of the main topic?
What Was going on in Rome?
Once again, we're looking at a letter, written to a specific group of people, in a specific time, at a specific place, with a specific need in mind. What can we learn about this?
Relying on some teachings from highly regarded evangelical Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright's research (who holds to the traditional perspective on homosexuality by the way), the church in Rome was going through some tough times. All Jews had been kicked out of the city by Emperor Claudius in 49 CE for being annoying proselytizers, and when they returned five years later the Jewish Christians among them found the Gentile Christians were naturally running the show. This set up a conflict between the two Christian groups, Jews and Gentiles, over leadership capacity and examples of righteous living.
In general, the Jews felt that they were on a higher order spiritually than all other nationalities, because they had the Law and did not come from idol-worshipping stock (at least in recent generations). The Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish theologians, in particular, seemed to have made this innate difference a pretty big deal in their teaching.
However, the Roman Gentile Christians, who likely started as "God-fearers" in Judaism before hearing the Gospel, were also naturally adamant to maintain their new-found distance from the Law, while the returning Jewish Christians continued to keep the practices of the Law and want the Gentiles to join back in. The Gentiles connected the practices of the Law with the initial Roman attention and banishment, and besides didn't want to take on all these practices since things seem to have been going well without them.
Paul hears about the conflict and disagreements, and even though he's never visited that church at this point, he feels that he needs to clarify the gospel for a mixed audience including both Greeks familiar with Stoicism and Jews influenced by contemporary Jewish teachings and philosophy. He may also be hoping to make Rome his new missionary base and wants a unified church to support him there.
Paul Writes a Letter
Paul begins with a fairly standard introduction, expressing his interest in coming to Rome soon. Let's run through a quick outline of the rest of the letter based on NT Wright's work:
- Greeting and thanksgiving (1:1-1:17)
- The Law grants nothing special for the Jews because the covenant is through faith and grace, not ancestry or works of the Law (chapters 1-4)
- Jewish-style critique of Gentile paganism—idols and immorality (1:18-32)
- Turning this back on the now cheering Jewish Christians in equal blame (2:1-29)
- Yes God must be faithful to his covenant but this now comes through Christ rather than the nation of Israel. No longer is it based on the faithfulness of men, but of Jesus. (ch 3)
- Therefore Abraham is our father in faith, not in flesh. Works of the law (like circumcision) have no part, only faith, hope and grace (ch 4)
- The full restoration of all creation has been fulfilled in Christ, and the covenant promises of the Jews are now given to all believers. (chapters 5-8)
- This transition from national promise to promise by faith was always God's intent and not a failure to or by Israel. Jews are welcomed equally with Gentiles, not rejected. (chapters 9-11)
- Now the church must live in unity, and not risk threats by either making moral or political errors. Unity requires agreeing to remain in diversity. (chapters 12-16)
Please consider this a very simple and limited overview, and consider reading Wright's original research if interested in further study in this direction.
Thoughts on the points Paul is making
There is conflict in the church between the Jews and the Gentiles over the Law and covenant promises. The Jews claim innate superiority based on their genetics ("nature") from Abraham and the giving of the Law. Paul points out that the Law has not made them morally superior, and that all are now considered equal in Christ.
He insists that they live in unity, and gives them guidance on how to live morally without needing the strictures of the Law.
In chapters 13 through 15, Paul emphasizes love and not judgement as our guiding principles.
Paul is using the words of Jesus to establish a new way of judging moral codes, laws and to determine what behaviors we should regard as sin. Instead of following a list of rules without question, we are always to ask ourselves: "is this truly, deeply, loving my neighbor?"
This sounds similar to what I found in 1 Corinthians and reminds me also of words Jesus spoke. Love, unity and not judging are common themes throughout the New Testament.
Back to Our Text: The Big Open
Ok, now that we've looked at one take on an overall theme for Romans, what about our core passage and the message about homosexuality? Let's take a closer look at the first two chapters.
Paul's masterful rhetoric
As we've established, Paul needs to put Jew and Gentile on the same moral plane before he can show them how they are equal in Christ. Instead of a straightforward statement of this fact, he employs a clever rhetorical device for maximum impact (it reminds me of the prophet Amos, but that’s another book!):
- Paul ends his greetings, stating his calling to bring the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles equally.
- Yet in verse 1:18 he begins to build a case against the pagans ("they"):
- They could see God in creation, yet did not acknowledge him.
- "So they are without excuse"
- They exchanged the glory of God for images of men and beasts: idols
- Because of their idolatry, God gave them up to serve the creature not the creator
- Because of their idolatry, God gave them up to abandon natural sex for unnatural
- Because of their idolatry, God gave them up to all immorality and wickedness
- Then Paul throws the trap on the Jewish believers ("you") who were likely feeling pretty superior by now:
- "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." (2:1)
That is, Paul points out that the Jews also participate in the immorality and wickedness of the world, even though they have the genetics ("nature") and the Law. Even though they have not been worshipping idols.
There's one more potential level to this trap though, that we might have caught if we lived in the 1st century too. It's a fascinating parallel, either way we interpret it, so let's do a cross-reference outside of the strict Protestant canon.
The Wisdom of Solomon
As part of the Christian tradition, inherited from our Jewish forefathers in faith, we have a number of extra books that are not considered by most Protestants to be at the same level of Sacred Text as the typical 66-book canon. We call these the Apocrypha. They came from Jewish communities in the disporia around 250 BCE to 100 BCE and were written in Greek rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. As they were included in the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible that the early Christians used, they became widely used by all branches of the Christian church.
Martin Luther first moved them to a separate section of the Bible in 1534 (under the title "Apocrypha: that is, Books which are not to be considered as equal to Holy Scripture, and yet are useful and good to read"), but up until the early 19th century all Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—had them all bound into the same Biblical volume. In 1826 the British and Foreign Bible Society, under pressure from Scottish Presbyterians, stopped including the Apocrypha in all published Bibles which was followed by most Protestant publishers. This lasted until 1967 when improved ecumenical relations with the broader church softened the rules. While these prohibitions are now over, many evangelical Christians do not consider them part of the Bible, nor are they read personally or corporately.
Although Christians have never held them to the same level of inspiration and authority as the rest of the canon, we can still learn from them. We can especially gain insight into the history and mindset of the Jewish community around the time of Paul since the books were written close to this time.
While we don't know if Paul definitely read the Apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon (also known as the Book of Wisdom or just Wisdom), it's likely that he would be familiar at least with the general arguments being made from the Hellenistic Jewish center of Alexandria. There is one section of this book, in chapters 13 through 15, that is well worth reading in the context of our exploration of Romans 1.
You can read the full text from the link above in the well-regarded New Jerusalem Bible translation (it's a Roman Catholic translation, but many Protestants like it too). You can also read it in several other translations on BibleGateway.com. I'm simply going to bring out some points that help us with Romans.
In this section of Wisdom, the author builds a case against the "they" of the idolatrous nations:
"Yes, naturally stupid are all who are unaware of God, and who, from good things seen, have not been able to discover Him—who-is, or, by studying the works, have not recognized the Artificer...
"And if they have been impressed by their power and energy, let them deduce from these how much mightier is he that has formed them, since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author.
"Small blame, however, attaches to them, for perhaps they go astray only in their search for God and their eagerness to find him; familiar with his works, they investigate them and fall victim to appearances, seeing so much beauty.
"But even so, they have no excuse: if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge to be able to investigate the world, how have they been so slow to find its Master?
"But wretched are they, with their hopes set on dead things, who have given the title of gods to human artifacts, gold or silver, skillfully worked, figures of animals, or useless stone, carved by some hand long ago.
"...The idea of making idols was the origin of fornication, their discovery corrupted life...
"With their child-murdering rites, their occult mysteries, or their frenzied orgies with outlandish customs, they no longer retain any purity in their lives or their marriages, one treacherously murdering another or wronging him by adultery. Everywhere a welter of blood and murder, theft and fraud, corruption, treachery, riot, perjury, disturbance of decent people, forgetfulness of favors, pollution of souls, sins against nature, disorder in marriage, adultery and debauchery.
"For the worship of idols with no name is the beginning, cause, and end of every evil."
Now the author switches to contrast the "we" of the Israelites:
"But you, our God, are kind and true, slow to anger, governing the universe with mercy.
"Even if we sin, we are yours, since we acknowledge your power, but we will not sin, knowing we count as yours.
"To know you is indeed the perfect virtue, and to know your power is the root of immortality. We have not been duped by inventions of misapplied human skill, or by the sterile work of painters, by figures daubed with assorted colors, the sight of which sets fools yearning and hankering for the lifeless form of an unbreathing image.
"Lovers of evil and worthy of such hopes are those who make them, those who want them and those who worship them."
How does this connect to Romans 1-2?
Notice the structure and content of the argument from the author of Wisdom. Look for similarity with the first half to Romans 1:18-32, and then note where it changes:
- Indictment against they (all other nations)
- They are stupid to not recognize God from creation
- They have no excuse
- They instead begin making idols
- The author insists that their idols are the origin of fornication
- ...leading to their rites of orgies, abandoning marriages
- ...which leads to all kinds of wickedness
- To conclude, the worship of idols they do is the beginning and cause of all evil.
- We the people of Israel are not like them
- We know God.
- Because we acknowledge God, we don't sin.
- Because we know God, we are not tricked by idol-makers.
- They are all lovers of evil, unlike us.
Have you spotted the initial striking parallel, and then the abrupt difference?
It seems to me that Paul is using Wisdom's argument, well-known to the Jews in Rome, only to destroy it in the second half (similar to how Job's friends present false concepts of God and reward for the wicked, only for him to counter them). He appears to initially accept the premise that idolatry is the root of all evil, and that the unstained (recent generations of) Jews are therefore more naturally righteous than idol-tainted Greeks.
Yet when Paul switches to speaking to Israel in Romans 2:1, he tips his hand. This is a ridiculous argument, he says. If worshipping physical idols, especially in sexual rituals, is the sole origin of sin, then why do the Jews also sin? No, he says, there is nothing different between the Jews and Gentiles. They are equal before God!
We could speculate and say that maybe idolatry is the root of Israel's problem as well – but instead of an idolatry of physical sculptures, they have made the Law and their 613 Commandments into the idol. The revelation of God in the Law, and practices such as circumcision that come from it, are so important that they "make Israel sinless by nature" (according to Jewish thought). They supposedly make those descended from Abraham morally superior, and allow them to judge others. But Paul points out their faulty foundation.
How often do we as Christians make our personal moral codes and tradition an idol that marks our superiority and allows us to judge? I know I do. It's human nature, I think.
What about those homosexual acts?
So, what can we conclude about Paul's description of the unnatural sex in Romans 1:26-27?
- It may not be his argument at all, but one that he is borrowing from Jewish philosophy to make his real point.
- Even if it is his argument, he's saying that the same-gender sex he describes is:
- Rooted in man-crafted idol worship practices.
- An abandoning of (previously engaged in?) heterosexual relations for homosexual (these people don't appear to be born homosexual) which can also be labeled general fornication or adultery.
- And these sexual worship practices then lead to a list of wickedness – they are separate this time from that list!
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this chapter, from Greek to Jewish philosophy and including some more Scriptural readings. Let’s try to summarize this pivotal passage.
- The Stoic concept of Nature, likely familiar to Paul’s audience, allows us to consider these verses in new ways. “Unnatural intercourse” may be defined as that which is opposed to an individual’s disposition, breaks agreed-on social conventions, or is at odds with the created order.
- Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is about uniting the early church’s Jews and Gentiles—first in moral equality before God, and then pointing them toward Jesus’s fulfillment of the covenant and how this sets them free to live in Love, not under moral and cultural Law.
- Finally, when we look carefully at the argument in the first chapter of Romans we may note two things:
- Paul appears to borrow from Jewish philosophical arguments in addition to Greek Stoicism, but maybe only in order to make a rhetorical negation of the entire premise
- However, if Paul does mean to use this argument to ban all same-sex relationships, then we should see them resulting in a life of wickedness and direct harm to others (Romans 1:29-30). Is this true of all our gay siblings in Christ today?
This passage is seen by many conservative Christians as the clearest prohibition of all homosexual relations (and the one that originally kept me on “side B”), yet I don’t think it’s as clearly condemning all homosexuality it looks on first read.
After all this reading and research, the most I am comfortable saying is that Paul throws out references against same-sex acts, quite likely in an adulterous context, while he’s building up an argument for the teachings that he really cares about.
Before we move on from our verse-by-verse study to a few broader observations in wrapping up, there’s one more section of Romans I’d like to point out:
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
— Romans 14:13-14
Here Paul returns to this concept of clean and unclean acts, but rather than uphold an external moral code he emphasizes the interior condition of the heart as most crucial. In context, he’s specifically discussing the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, which is one of only two commands passed on to the church by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
In a similar pattern to many of the messages of Christ in the Gospels, the focus is not on the inherent quality of an external act, but on the orientation of our heart and our motives.
Page photo credit: "Ganapati Idols at Opera House, Mumbai" by Preshit Deorukhkar on Flickr