Paul’s criticism of sexual activity
Romans 1:26 and 27, at first glance, appear to condemn gay and lesbian activity. Paul criticizes sexual activity which is against a person’s nature or disposition. But in Greek society of the time, homosexuality and bisexuality were regarded as a natural activity for some people. Thus Paul might have been criticizing heterosexuals who were engaged in homosexual activities against their nature. He might not be referring to homosexuals or bisexuals at all.
The verses preceding Romans 1:26 might indicate that he was referring to sexual acts associated with idol worship. The verse is too vague to be interpreted as a blanket prohibition of all same-sex activities.
This passage has been used by some Christians to make an issue over how “unrighteous” and sinful homosexuals are. In fact, it has been used to support the view that AIDS is the “penalty of their error which was due.” What is fascinating about this kind of application is that it is totally at odds with what Paul was really saying. In order to understand the point of Romans 1, you must read Romans 1-3. The outline is as follows:
- The Gospel is for everyone, Jews and Gentiles. (Romans 1:16)
- Why? Because God’s wrath is against all unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18)
- The Gentiles need the Gospel (Romans 1:28-32). The examples of their “uncleanness” include idolatry and homosexual acts which are either connected to or resulting from idolatry.
- But the Jews are just as unrighteous as the Gentiles. (Romans 2:3)
- “All have sinned” and are “justified (made right with God) freely by God’s grace (unearned love) through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3:23-24)
While Paul is certainly not favorable toward the homosexual acts that he is writing about, it is interesting to note that Paul classifies them “unclean,” which is not necessarily a “moral” precept. (According to the Holiness Code, lobsters and shrimp are “unclean” also.) He may be pointing out that though the Jews are different than the Gentiles in that they are ritually “clean” (according to the Old Covenant), they are still just as much in need of the grace of the New Covenant.
Let’s look at some of the verses in this section:
And receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. (Romans 1:27b)
Is Paul here saying that those who committed homosexual acts were punished in some physical way… as in venereal disease? Or could “uncleanness,” being cut off from the Old Hebrew Covenant, be the penalty of the Gentiles’ error?
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting. (Romans 1:28)
People often take this to mean one of the following things:
- Since homosexuals didn’t retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind.
- Since the Gentiles were idolatrous, God gave them over to a debased mind of homosexuality.
However, it’s possible that Paul was saying the following:
- “Since the Gentiles did not retain God in their knowledge God gave them over to a debased mind.” (Romans 1:28) The debased mind is not homosexuality, but a mind that is centered on unrighteousness, hence the listing of what the Gentile mind is full of in Romans 1:29.
- Romans 1:29-32: This list of “unrighteousness” is being applied to all Gentiles, not Gentiles that commit homosexual sex acts. It is the Gentiles “who are worthy of death.” These verses are really just an exposition of Romans 1:18.
- Romans 1:26-27: Another interesting point to consider is that people often use Romans 1:26-27 to prove that Paul used an argument from “nature” to prove that homosexual activity was wrong. However, that kind of usage of the word “nature” is highly unlikely as Paul usually uses the word “nature” or “natural” to mean not what “Mother Nature” does but instead he means “the previously accepted common usage.” Nature is not a great teacher about ethics, and humans are nowhere called in scripture to emulate it. What is more, homosexual activity does go on in the animal world.
It must be remembered also that Paul was referring to homosexual acts, not homosexuals. And no one knows what homosexual acts Paul was talking about; no one knows the background.
We must ask ourselves, “What type of homosexual acts was Paul talking about?” Was he talking exclusively about homosexual acts connected with idolatry? (Perhaps that was the only kind of homosexual activity he was familiar with.) Was he talking about pederasty? Was he talking about homosexual acts committed with slaves? Was he talking about people of heterosexual orientation committing homosexual acts? Just exactly what type of homosexual acts was he concerned with? Do people have the right to just assume that these verses were a blanket condemnation of homosexual sex in every context?
Instead, consider that Paul may have been referring to same-sex sexual acts committed in idolatrous worship by people he regarded as heterosexual. Even the most conservative theologian can only give their opinion as to what type of same-sex acts Paul was referring to. No one can state that God clearly condemns all homosexuality activity based upon these verses. It is just too vague.
Based on the context of Paul’s writing in Romans 1-3, we can choose to believe that God’s New Covenant of grace embraces those who believe in Jesus; being a Jew doesn’t make one better than a Gentile; being a heterosexual doesn’t make one any better than a homosexual. Romans 1-3 strikes at the very heart of self-righteous pride. It is amazing that some Christians continue to lord their own sense of righteousness over gays and lesbians as if their heterosexual sex acts make them somehow better, or less in need of grace. We are all in need of grace, and we all have that grace in Jesus Christ.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.