Paul on Same-Sex Sexual Relationships in Romans

Paul on Same-Sex Sexual Relationships in Romans

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May 4, 2021

According to traditional readings of the Bible, a set of texts, often called the “clobber texts,” are assumed to make an open and shut case for God’s condemnation of all same-sex sexual relationships. Of the six most used clobber texts, Romans 1:26-27 is often considered to be the strongest of the lot, since it is purported to condemn not only same-sex sexual relationships between men but is the only place in the Bible considered to also condemn such relationships between women. But, considering what is now known about same-sex sexual attraction and the opportunity for same-sex couples to now be married, do the clobber texts, and Paul in particular, clearly support condemning same-sex sexual relationships in all contexts? What is the context of Paul’s words in Romans 1? What issue is Paul addressing and what was Paul’s understanding of committed, monogamous same-sex relationships?

Before delving into Romans, it might be helpful to address the church’s current understanding of the issue. Although the traditional teaching that all same-sex sexual behavior is a sin remains largely affirmed in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it has become somewhat more nuanced, and in the wider Christian church even larger changes have occurred. Since life scientists, sociologists, and psychologists have concluded that same-sex attraction is unchangeable, and is to a large degree inborn, the SDA church has shifted from a blanket condemnation of being gay as sinful to a focus on behavior. The North American Division has officially stated that although being gay is the result of sin, being gay itself is not a sin; engaging in same-sex sexual behavior, however, is a sin. Thus, as long as a gay person remains celibate, they are not violating God’s law and they can be a full member of the church. According to this reasoning, “practicing” gays are excluded from full membership.[i]

Gay Christians, in the broader Christian community, have taken two divergent approaches to the issue, often dubbed sides A and B. Side A gay Christians recognize same-sex attraction as just one of the diverse forms of normal sexuality, which means that being gay is not the result of sin, it is a natural state. Consequently, side A gay Christians fully affirm same-sex marriage. Side B gay Christians are more in line with the SDA position, considering being gay a consequence of the sinful, fallen state of the world and humanity, with the most acceptable path for remaining pure being celibacy. Side B gay Christians also consider it acceptable for a gay person to marry someone of the opposite sex if the relationship is entered into with full disclosure.

Even though the SDA church, at least in the NAD, considers nonpracticing gays as members of the church in full standing, this does not necessarily prevent the ostracism so commonly felt by gay Christians, and many church members perpetuate gay stereotypes, which prevents many gays from feeling fully embraced by the church. Add to that the lifetime of loneliness they can look forward to in their enforced celibacy if they want to remain a member of the church, and it should be no surprise that gay Christians experience much higher rates of depression and suicidality.[ii] LGBTQ+ young people, who are in the process of exploring their sexual identity, are especially impacted, being up to 8.4 times more likely than their peers to have attempted suicide in response to parental rejection.[iii]

Most Christians view their traditional “biblical” stance on same-sex sexuality as sacrosanct and feel little need to reexamine the issue. However, when LGBTQ+ individuals, their families, and friends begin to see the trauma associated with enforcement of these traditional teachings, they become more willing to reconsider how the church should respond. One option is just to ignore the Bible’s teachings on the topic, assuming they are no longer binding, or that surely God’s love simply negates such harsh rules. This approach, however, is unpalatable to those who consider all Scripture authoritative. Consequently, a number of modern theologians have revisited the Bible’s clobber texts to see if under more careful study these texts may have been inappropriately interpreted. This is much like what biblical scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries did with the topic of slavery in the Bible. Much traditional biblical scholarship supported the acceptability of American and European chattel slavery, whole books having been written by pro-slavery theologians showing how the Bible supports the concept that the descendants of Ham (assumed to have been the father of the African peoples) were cursed by God to be slaves to Noah’s other descendants.[iv] Revisionist theologians concluded that the Bible, although appearing to condone slavery, when probed more deeply is thoroughly opposed to any kind of oppression of one person over another. The oppression of LGBTQ+ individuals which the Bible also seems to condone, when interpreted traditionally, has similarly been found by modern revisionist theologians to have been interpreted incorrectly.

Romans 1:26-27 is no exception, and properly understood, cannot be used to condemn same-sex marriage, for which it is so often used. These two verses obviously condemn some sort of sexual behavior, but context is important in understanding exactly what kind. Additionally, using these verses as a criterion for judging other people’s moral behavior is to take the entire first chapter of Romans out of context. The two verses in question are part of a longer diatribe that begins in verse 18 and is used as a set up for Romans 2. First, read Romans 1:18-32 to get the complete context:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 27 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 their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. 29 They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.[v]

Some biblical scholars have long suspected that these verses were borrowed, with some reworking and paraphrasing, from some other source, as the language and word choices are atypical of the rest of the book of Romans. These verses resemble a rhetorical tool used by contemporaries of Paul to contrast the Jews and Gentiles, the basic argument being that idolatry, as practiced by the pagan Gentiles, leads to all manner of sinful behavior. The Jews, because they follow God’s prohibition against worshipping idols, are protected from slipping into the evil practices so common among Gentiles. He goes further, saying that the Gentiles have no excuse, because the natural world itself points toward the one God, creator of all things, and when they ignore this obvious truth, God leaves them to their depravity. One possible source for these verses is the apocryphal book Wisdom of Solomon, which uses the very same line of reasoning, right down to inclusion of a vice list containing similar sinful practices:

1For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that
are seen to know him who exists,
nor did they recognize the craftsman while
paying heed to his works;

4And if men were amazed at their power and working,
let them perceive from them
how much more powerful is he who formed them.
5For from the greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. . .

8Yet again, not even they are to be excused;
9for if they had the power to know so much
that they could investigate the world,
how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?

10But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are the men
who give the name "gods" to the works of men's hands,
gold and silver fashioned with skill,
and likenesses of animals,
or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand.

18For health he appeals to a thing that is weak;
for life he prays to a thing that is dead;
for aid he entreats a thing that is utterly inexperienced;
for a prosperous journey, a thing that cannot take a step;
19for money-making and work and success with his hands
he asks strength of a thing whose hands have no strength.

22Afterward it was not enough for them to err
about the knowledge of God,

24they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure,
but they either treacherously kill one another,
or grieve one another by adultery,
25and all is a raging riot of blood and murder,
theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury,
26confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors,
pollution of souls, sex perversion,
disorder in marriage, adultery, and debauchery.
27For the worship of idols not to be named
is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.[vi]

By the time a reader reaches the end of either of these texts, it is easy to feel a sense of smug superiority, confident that as a Christian (or Jew) they are free from falling into such sinful practices. Reading Romans 1 as a separate unit, this is the sense one gets. Paul seems to be building the case that since Christians are not idol worshipers, they will remain free from these sinful practices, but that those who do not recognize God’s sovereignty are true reprobates condemned by God and certainly open to judgment from God’s people. Romans 1 is not meant to be read by itself, however, and if it is the actual point Paul is making is lost. Revisit the last few verses of Romans 1 and keep reading into Romans 2:

29 They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.

1Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?[vii]

In Romans 1, Paul sets a clever trap, lulling the reader into a false sense of self-righteous judgment against unbelievers, and then springs the trap in Chapter 2. Paul is hearkening back to Jesus’ teaching of “judge not, lest you be judged” and identifies the act of judging others for their sinful behavior as equally sinful. Therefore, using Romans 1:26-27 as a source of condemnation for those who engage in same-sex sexual behavior is itself suspect, as it runs entirely counter to Paul’s reason for including those verses. By judging and condemning individuals for such behavior, according to Paul, you are equally condemned by God.

Despite the apparent inappropriateness of using Romans 1:26-27 as a clobber text, it is still routinely used, so it is important to also look closely at this text and ascertain whether its apparent condemnation of same-sex relationships is the correct interpretation. To do that will require delving into the cultural/historical context and analyzing the word choices in the original Greek. Do these verses condemn same-sex sexual relations, and if so, to what degree and in what contexts?

Same-sex sexual acts in New Testament times were viewed as attempts to fulfill excessive, self-centered sexual appetites, the epitome of which were examples like Caligula, “as this monstrous self-serving ego knew no boundaries and violated virtually every sexual taboo known to humanity.”[viii] Male-male sexual relations were routinely considered to be exploitative, involving such things as pederasty, or a more dominant male taking advantage of a weaker male (often a slave or other inferior). Such relations were not considered consensual. The act of penetration was considered shameful because it “feminized” the receiver and such activities represented a threat to patriarchy and male masculinity. Paul and his contemporaries saw same-sex relations as an outgrowth of out-of-control lust, not as a sexual orientation. There was absolutely no context in which Paul could conceive of a man being sexually attracted to another man, so the only interpretation of such behavior was that it represents pure, unbridled lust.

Paul’s choice of words also adds insight to these verses. “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful (ἀτιμίας) lusts” (Romans 1:26).[ix] The Greek word, ἀτιμίας (atimias), means variously dishonor, disgrace, shame, or common. Two other Pauline texts that use this word are Romans 9:21, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common (ἀτιμίαν) use?” and 1 Corinthians 11:14, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace (ἀτιμία) to him…” Based on the various contextual uses of ἀτιμία, it refers more to violations of social convention than sinful behavior, per se. This is typical of an honor/shame society. So, although socially unacceptable, considering such acts shameful does not automatically identify them as sinful.

A very different Greek word with a similar meaning is used in Romans 1:27: Men committed “shameful acts” (ἀσχημοσύνη; aschēmosynē) with other men…” Paul uses this word just once in his writings and the word is only used in one other place in the NT, “Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully (ἀσχημοσύνην) exposed” Revelation 16:15, where it is similarly translated. Contextually, ἀσχημοσύνη is used in the same way as ἀτιμία to describe violations of social convention, whether or not such an action is sinful.

One pair of related Greek words Paul uses in these verses are much more charged. The words φυσικός (physikos) and φύσις (phusis), which are both translated as some form of the words nature, natural, or instinctive, present a considerable challenge because of the difference in what these words would have meant in NT times compared to our views on what is termed “natural” or according to nature today. We often invest these words with a deeper philosophical, even teleological, meaning today than Paul did. In context, here are where these two words occur:

Even their women exchanged natural (φυσικὴν[x]) sexual relations for unnatural (παρὰ φύσιν[xi]) ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural (φυσικὴν) relations with women (Romans 1:26-27).

The word φυσικός is used by Paul only in these two verses and the word is never used in the canonical books of the Septuagint, Paul’s source for Old Testament material. However, it is used in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, a further clue that the vice list in Romans 1 may have been borrowed and modified from that or a similar source. The only other text in the NT that uses φυσικός is 1 Peter 2:12:

“But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, ‘creatures of instinct (φυσικα[xii]), born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.”

Both verses could easily lead a reader to conclude that Paul is speaking of a deep, natural, God-designed plan for proper sexual relations. Thus, the argument of many who use Romans 1:26-27 as a clobber text is to claim that same-sex relations are unnatural, contrary to God’s plan for man, making all same-sex sexual relations a sin, regardless the context. We must not be so hasty, however, since Paul had no biological understanding of sexual orientation. As James Brownson says,

“So, when we seek to bring ancient discussions into our modern context, we run into some problems. In the ancient world we see almost no interest at all in the question of sexual orientation, particularly among critics of same-sex behavior. Rather, we see the kinds of discussion found in Romans 1 focusing on two problems: the subjective problem of excessive lust and the objective problem of behavior that is regarded as “contrary to nature.” Yet when these discussions are translated into a modern context, the question of lust tends to recede into the background, because, as we have seen, it seems irrelevant to the question of committed gay unions. Instead, the focus falls on the objective problem that same-sex eroticism is “contrary to nature.” Traditionalists generally are far more comfortable talking about sexuality ‘objectively’ than in dealing with the inner and subjective aspects of sexual orientation. This is true in no small part because the Bible does not envision the category of sexual orientation; it only addresses the problem of excessive desire.”[xiii]

Paul uses the word φύσις both elsewhere in Romans and in 1 Corinthians. His use of the word in Romans 11:24, in reference to the grafting of Gentile “wild olive branches” into God’s chosen people, almost sounds like a reference to nature as we use the word today:

“After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature (φύσιν), and ‘contrary to nature’ (παρά φύσιν) were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural (φύσιν) branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!”

Note, however, that Paul is not using the word in the sense we do when we say that something natural is unchangeable or is as God has created it. The Gentiles, represented by Paul as wild (by nature, φύσιν), are not permanently that way, otherwise they would not be able to be grafted into the cultivated olive tree, which is Israel, with the other natural (φύσιν) branches. Clearly, Paul is using the word natural in a lighter, more cultural, conventional sense. Gentiles behave as Gentiles because that is their cultural background, and cultural baggage can be discarded, thus allowing Gentiles to join in fellowship with God’s chosen people. That Paul tends to use φύσις about social convention is more apparent in 1 Corinthians 11:14. “Does not the very nature (φύσις) of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace (ἀτιμία) to him…”

So, when Paul calls same-sex sex acts unnatural he means that they violate normal societal conventions. “Contrary to nature” (παρά φύσιν) seems more appropriately to refer to what is “unusual” or “unconventional.” Automatically assuming that something that is παρά φύσιν (against nature) is sinful, and thus universally forbidden, would be taking Paul’s words too far.

“We are laying down a land mine to trip over later if we insist that para phusis is a description of behavior that is inherently immoral. In Romans 11, Paul closes in on his theological argument for the full inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God, and he uses the imagery of grafting a branch onto an olive tree. In his metaphor, the olive tree is Israel and the branches that God grafts in are the Gentiles. Paul says that God grafted them in — you guessed it — para phusis. For God to include the Gentiles into the family was a move against nature. Therefore, it stands to reason that just because a particular action in the Bible is called “contrary to nature” cannot inherently imply that it is evil and wicked, otherwise, according to Paul, God acted in evil and wicked ways.”[xiv]

Even if Paul were intending it to mean natural, as in how we are born, this would take on new meaning today, now that we understand that gays are attracted to same-sex individuals “by nature,” i.e., they are born that way.[xv] This would mean that for a gay person it is “natural” to be attracted to someone of their own sex, and from a biological perspective, this is true. Suggesting that a gay person remain celibate, ignoring their natural sexual attraction, or to marry someone of the opposite sex (even though they feel no attraction for them) would be asking a gay person to do what is “unnatural” for them.

Because Romans 1:26 is the only place in the Bible that appears to mention same-sex sexual relations between women, it is also important to consider what Paul is referring to in this regard. Because the verse (“even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones”) does not explicitly say what Paul means by “natural sexual relations,” we need to be wary of simply accepting the bulk of interpreters after the first few centuries AD who assumed he is referring to same-sex relations. Following this tradition is problematic, because not only are female same-sex relations not discussed anywhere else in the Bible, they are also rarely discussed in contemporary sources.

A more likely interpretation is that Paul’s description is referring to general sexual misconduct involving women outside the marriage bed. For example, as Suetonius recounts, Gaius Caligula “lived in the habit of incest with all his sisters; and at table, when much company was present, he placed each of them in turns below him, whilst his wife reclined above him.”[xvi] Such deviant sexual practices were common in Caligula’s household, and he was not the only one. Most powerful men routinely had multiple female sex partners, even while remaining “nominally” monogamous.[xvii]

Another possible interpretation relates to the patriarchal culture of the time. Women were the passive partner in “normal” sexual relations between a man and woman, and any departure from that was considered “contrary to nature.” All the early commentators such as Clement of Alexandria and Augustine see this verse as a reference to “unnatural” anal/oral sex between a man and woman. Even if, as many commentators since have considered Paul’s comment as a description of lesbian sex, in our modern understanding about what drives same-sex attraction, such behavior would be “natural” biologically.

To conclude, then, same-sex sexual relations to Paul represented a consequence of self-centered, excessive lust — men seeking to have sex with other men, for example, to fulfill their overpowering lustful desires. Paul had no understanding of the underlying biology of same-sex attraction, and thus had no context in which to consider any kind of permissible same-sex sexual behavior. Same-sex marriage not only did not exist, but no one even conceived of such a practice, as it ran counter to the primary functions of marriage at that time. Without knowing, as we do today, that same-sex attraction is a core biological drive, analogous to the more typical attraction between opposite sexed individuals, it is no surprise that Paul’s words would appear to categorically condemn same-sex sexual behavior. Paul has much to say about immoral kinds of sexual behavior, whether same-sex or otherwise, but has nothing directly to say about same-sex marriage and the inappropriateness of sexual relations in that context, as is so often assumed. Consequently, we are left with deciding whether same-sex marriage is morally permissible based on more general biblical, moral principles, rather than specific texts that might support or prohibit it, much like abolitionists in the 19th century when deciding on the moral permissibility of slavery.

It is time for the church to reconsider the Bible’s stance on same-sex sexual behavior. Since same-sex attraction is natural for gay and lesbian individuals, we should not stand in the way of them joining together in marriage. In a committed, monogamous relationship same-sex sexual relations serve the same function as sexual relations in heterosexual unions — the sealing and deepening of the marriage relationship. Sexual relations outside the marriage context would continue to be considered wrong, whether involving same-sex or opposite-sex partners, and ideally those who violate these prohibitions would be treated with the same loving concern, respect, and equanimity Jesus has asked us to have with anyone who falls into sin. The church does not continually hound heterosexual individuals about their possible violations of sexual purity like it has routinely done with suspected or known LGBTQ+ individuals. It is time for the church to treat all equally in this arena, whether heterosexual or LGBTQ+.

 

Editor’s Note: SDA Kinship is sponsoring a program to provide UnClobber FREE to interested Adventists. Visit www.sdakinship.org/unclobber to learn more. Read a review of the book here.

 

Notes & References:

[i] This statement was voted during the Year-end Meeting of the North American Division Executive Committee on November 2, 2015 in Silver Spring, Maryland: http://static1.squarespace.com/static/52e95006e4b07e24d108dea2/t/56451dcfe4b07ecc460065f3/1447370191826/NAD+Statement+on+Human+Sexuality-Nov+2+2015.pdf, retrieved 04/20/2021].

[ii] Lytle, M.C., Blosnich, J.R., De Luca, S.M. and Brownson, C., 2018. Association of religiosity with sexual minority suicide ideation and attempt. American journal of preventive medicine54(5), pp.644-651.

[iii] Ryan, C., Huebner, D., Diaz, R.M. and Sanchez, J., 2009. Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics123(1), pp.346-352.

[iv] Such pro-slavery treatises are not hard to find, two examples being Priest, J., 1852. Bible Defence of Slavery: And Origin, Fortunes, and History of the Negro Race. WS Brown and Jones, J.R., 1861. Slavery Sanctioned by the Bible: The First Part of a General Treatise on the Slavery Question. JB Lippincott & Company.

[v] Romans 1:18-32, Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[vi] Wisdom of Solomon 13:1, 4-5, 8-10, 18-19 & 14:22, 24-27, ibid.

[vii] Roman 1:29-2:3, ibid.

[viii] Brownson, J.V., 2013. Bible, gender, sexuality: Reframing the church's debate on same-sex relationships. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 166.

[ix] All Bible texts, except where otherwise noted, are from the New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

[x] Accusative, singular feminine form of the adjective φυσικός.

[xi] Sometimes translated as “against nature.” φύσιν is the accusative, singular feminine form of φύσις.

[xii] Normative, plural neuter form of the adjective φυσικός.

[xiii] Brownson, J.V., 2013, p. 170.

[xiv] Martin, C., 2016. UnClobber: Rethinking our misuse of the Bible on homosexuality. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 132

[xv] It is more complex than this, because a complex trait like sexual attraction is more accurately the product of interactions between nature and nurture. In other words, although there is overwhelming evidence that same-sex attraction is heavily influenced by genes, the intrauterine environment also seems to play a part. What is widely acknowledged, however, is that for most gay people their sexual orientation is unchangeable and is a part of who they are, so although saying a person is born gay is not entirely accurate, it is an acceptable simplification reminding people that being gay is natural, and thus not a defect or abnormal in any way.

[xvi] Tranquillus, C. Suetonius, 1896. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, translated by Alexander Thomson. G. Bell & Sons, p. 268

[xvii] Betzig, L., 1992. Roman polygyny. Ethology and sociobiology13(5-6), pp.309-349.

 

Bryan Ness has BS and MS degrees in biology from Walla Walla University, and a PhD in botany (plant mo­lecular genetics) from Washington State University. He is currently a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union Col­lege (PUC) where he has been teaching for 30 years.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

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