Biblical restrictions against same-gender sexual activity may seem incredibly counter-cultural. Certainly, this charge is leveled against other biblical teachings as well. Many people find the prohibition against premarital sex to be unrealistic, and contributing money regularly to a church strikes people as foolish, and the idea that Christ is the only way to God can appear to some as intolerant. Biblical teachings reflect the values of God’s kingdom and show us what life should look like under God’s reign. But God’s kingdom has always been in tension with the kingdoms of this world. Romans 1:18-32 paints a picture of what it looks like to resist God’s reign.
Literary Context of Romans 1:18-32
After the apostle Paul greets his readers, introduces himself, and articulates his gospel message (Romans 1:1-17), he devotes several chapters (Rom 1:18-3:21) to demonstrating that all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, are sinful and therefore deserving of God’s judgment (“that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” – Romans 3:19). Paul introduces this section of his letter with the pronouncement of God’s wrath against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness” (πᾱσα ἀσέβεια καὶ ἀδικία). These are words that shape our understanding of what follows – sinful rejection of God and sinful behaviors. “Unrighteousness” (ἀδικία) stands in contrast to the “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη) revealed in the gospel (1:16-17).
Romans 1:19-23 speaks of Gentiles’ rejection of God’s general revelation and their descent into idolatry. The focus is not on each individual Gentile’s experience with idolatry, but with idolatry as characteristic of a Gentile world that denies the knowledge of God.
Romans 1:24-25 is a transitional verse that introduces God’s “handing over” of idolaters into immorality. The immorality is described as “the desires of their hearts resulting in impurity (ἀκαρθασία) and the dishonoring of their bodies among/in themselves.” “Dishonoring (ἀτιμάζω) of their bodies” is not defined here but anticipates the description of “dishonorable” (ἀτιμία) same-sex practices in the verses that follow. The prepositional phrase at the end of Romans 1:24 (ἐν αὐτοῖς) could be interpreted as “among themselves” (as a culture-wide phenomenon) or “in themselves” (with a possible parallel in 1 Corinthians 6:18).
Romans 1:26-32 describes the “dishonorable passions,” with 1:26-27 focusing on male-male and female-female sexual activities.
This passage should not be read as Paul’s musings on the psychology of same-sex attraction and behavior. Paul does not set out to prove that for a given individual the experience of same-sex attraction or the practice of same-sex activity is caused by rejecting God. Paul’s purpose is more general: to argue that “idolatry leads to social disintegration, particularly in the form of sexual confusion, as God hands people over to the consequences of their sinful desires” (Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament, 351).
The Text of Romans 1:26-27
“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
“For this reason” – see verse 25 – the reason is the rejection of God for idolatry.
“God gave them up – repeats the language of verse 24 and is repeated again in verse 28. God releases idolaters to their lusts (ἐπιθυμία), passions (πάθος), and debased minds (ἀδόκιμος νοῡς). The verse does not indicate the cause of immorality but describes the unchecked reign of these immoral desires and activities.
- “Dishonorable” (ἀτιμία) – “a state of dishonor or disrespect,” (BDAG, 149).
- “Passion” (πάθος) – “experience of strong desire, passion,” (BDAG, 748). This is used in a negative way in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 and Colossians 3:5 as well.
“For” (γάρ) – explains the way in which the passions are dishonorable.
“The women” – Paul describes the prevalence of sexual activity between females before turning his attention to the males.
- The inclusion of women in descriptions of same-gender sexual activity invalidates the argument that Paul is denouncing only abusive sexual relationships in which one participant is an adult and the other is not (such as pederasty – sexual activity between an adult male and a younger boy). Schreiner notes that “there is no evidence that older women victimized younger girls, and so this theory does not account for the indictment of female sexual relations” (Thomas Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 661).
“Exchanged” is the same word as 1:25 (exchanging the truth of God for a lie) and is related to 1:23 (exchanging the glory of God for images). The pattern reflects exchanging what is true and good for what is false and wrong.
In this case (verse 26), the charge is that people exchange “natural relations” (φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) for “those that are contrary to nature” (τὴν παρὰ φύσιν).
- φυσικός is “pertaining to being in accordance with the basic order of things in nature,” (BDAG, 1069).
- χρῆσις is the “state of involvement with a person, relations, function, especially of sexual intercourse,” (BDAG, 1089).
- φύσις is “the regular or established order of things, nature,” (BDAG, 1070).
In summary, “their women” are said to exchange sexual activities that align with the natural order of things for activities that are against the natural order of things.
For Paul “natural” and “contrary to nature” are categories that are both transparent from observation (male and female differentiation, which is evident to all) and in alignment with God’s creative design from Genesis 1-2. This connection between God’s creative design and observed order is affirmed in Romans 1:20 (God’s attributes are perceived “ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”) Additional corroborating evidence that male and female distinction is what is “natural” is found with the pairing of “women and men” or “females and males” (θῆλυς and ἄρσην) in this passage (see the LXX version of Genesis 1:27, Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6, and Galatians 3:28). In summary, Paul uses “natural” and “contrary to nature” to describe actions “in accordance with the intention of the Creator” and actions “contrary to the intention of the Creator” (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, 1:125).
- Paul likewise appeals to “nature” or φύσις in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15, where observed design from creation (“nature”) is used to condemn the practice of men looking like women or vice versa. (Note that in that passage, the confusion of genders was culturally expressed and pertinent to that particular culture, but the basis for not having confusion in the first place was timeless and grounded in creation-determined differentiation between men and women).
- Natural and unnatural is not determined inwardly, according to the person’s orientation, but according to God’s design in creation. In other words, a person may protest that certain actions are in fact natural to that person’s inclinations, but the Bible does not accept those as natural if they conflict with God’s revealed will.
Some of the same language from verse 26 is applied to men in verse 27. The men’s “natural use” (φυσικὴν χρῆσιν) is “departed from/abandoned” (ἀφίημι- see BDAG, 156). This time though, the parallel to “contrary to nature” (which is opposite of “natural”) is spelled out more specifically. The men were “consumed with passion for one another, men carrying out shameful acts with men and receiving in/among themselves the penalty which was necessary for their error.”
- “Consumed” (ἐκκαίω) is defined as “have a strong desire for, be inflamed” in BDAG, 303.
- “Passion” (ὄρεξις) describes “a condition of strong desire, longing,” (BDAG, 721).
- Note that this is a description of misdirected passion rather than excess passion. The emphasis is on the passion that is not according to “nature.” The disordered passion results in committing same-sex acts. From the men’s perspective, the actions were aligned with their passions, but from God’s perspective, the actions were contrary to nature.
- Contrary to Vines, 105 (Paul “was condemning excess as opposed to moderation”), Paul is criticizing disordered (contrary to nature and God’s will from creation) passions as opposed to ordered (in harmony with nature and God’s will from creation) passions.
The behavior between “one another” is immediately restated as “men in/with/among men” (ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν).
These men were “carrying out” (κατεργάζομαι – BDAG, 531) “shameful acts” (ἀσχημοσύνη), which is defined as “behavior that elicits its disgrace” (BDAG, 147).
These men (same grammatical subject) also were “receiving” (ἀπολαμβάνω) “the penalty” (ἀντιμισθία – “requital based upon what one deserves, recompense, exchange,” BDAG, 90), which “was necessary” (ἔδει) for their error (πλάνη) – “wandering from the path of truth; error, delusion, deceit, deception” (BDAG, 822). These men received this penalty “in/among themselves,” which is similar language to Rom 1:24 and could mean either among them broadly or within each sinner (with a nod to the personal nature of sexual sin – 1 Corinthians 6:18). The same-sex acts themselves are the penalty for denying God’s natural revelation (not some penalty on top of the same-sex acts), recalling that the language is parallel to “acts contrary to nature” in Rom 1:26.
Why did Paul highlight these vices (women having sex with women and men having sex with men) in particular? For one, it was shocking to the Jewish mindset, which Paul sought to identify with at that point in the argument. But two, Paul likely sees a connection between rejecting the revealed knowledge of God in nature with the distortion of the natural manner of sexual intercourse. Both involve abandonment of the naturally revealed knowledge of creation and its creator. See Gagnon, 264-268 for further examination of connections between the idolatry and same-sex practices as they are described in this passage.
Romans 2:1, where Paul abruptly confronts the Jewish moralist for his/her sin, reveals more of Paul’s agenda for Romans 1-3. His purpose is to show that all people are sinners and accountable to God (see Romans 3:19-20). Even though Romans 2:1 serves as a “gotcha” moment for the Jewish readers, Paul still presents points he sees as valid in Romans 1:18-32 (as seen in the transition from the righteousness found in the gospel – Romans 1:16-17 – to the unrighteousness of humanity introduced in Romans 1:18). This resembles the familiar OT prophetic pattern of denouncing both the nations and the Jewish people for their sins (before promising a future hope through God’s saving work).
There is a close association between this passage and Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14. They have similar critiques of Gentile idolatry and immorality. Wisdom of Solomon may mention same sex relations in 14:26 (γενεσεως ἐναλλαγη), though this is debated.
Could same-gender sexual activity within a committed marriage fall outside of the negative characterization of same-gender sexual activity within this passage? Paul does not indicate the legitimacy of any exception to the rule. And any such practice, whether inside or outside a marriage, would still seem to involve activity that is in opposition to the “natural function” Paul describes in the passage. As John Stott notes, the Bible does not support the idea that “love is the only absolute, and that whatever seems to be compatible with love is ipso facto good, irrespective of all other considerations” (Issues Facing Christians Today, 350).
This brings us back, full circle, to the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is abundant life, even “human flourishing,” with the key qualifier that this is life lived under God’s reign, according to his perfect wisdom. As difficult as a biblical teaching may sound, we can trust that God’s perfect wisdom will lead us into paths of life, both now and for eternity.