The most important biblical text for the study of homosexuality and the church is Romans 1:18–23. This passage is "the only clear and direct" reference to homoeroticism says Martti Nissinen in Homoeroticism in the Biblical World. Here Paul denounces both male and female same-sex behaviour in the context of a lengthy theological argument.
The first three chapters of Romans constitute a comprehensive, carefully-argued line of thought. Paul begins with a fundamental confession of faith (Romans 1:16–17): The gospel is the power of God for salvation. In it is revealed righteousness by faith.
Paul proceeds to explore what this signifies (1:18–3:26). God has been generous to all people, Paul asserts, but people turned away to worship other gods (1:20–23). To this human rebellion God responded by withdrawing. God "gave them up" (1:24; 1:26; 1:28). The result of God's walking away from idolatrous humanity was that people became enmeshed in a life of doing things that should not be done (1:28).
As evidence of this alienation, Paul presents a long list of adjectives and nouns to descibe human depravity, including "every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (1:29–31). Paul warns that such vices deserve the penalty of death (1:32).
Just in case that the reader is beginning to feel rather smug about the fact that "they" (the Gentiles who worship other gods) incur god's displeasure, Paul turns to the self-righteous reader, saying in effect, "you are no better than they." Then Paul explains why this is so. When you judge others you condemn yourself (2:1–5). Thus all people must tremble before the God who "will judge the secret thoughts of all" (2:16).
The point of the whole discourse is that "There is no one who is righteous, not even one" (3:10). For all people, Jews and Gentiles, there is only one avenue of escape: the grace of God, freely offered to people who have no claim on it (3:23–24). That brings Paul back to his starting point. The good news is that the grace of God is for all people with no exceptions. This grace of God is received through faith.
This is the message Paul wants to drive home. The heart of his sermon is God's free gift to all who fall short. The real subject here is justification by grace through faith. Paul talks about morality only to make the point that every human being needs God's grace.
In describing the human situation apart from God, Paul has evidently not given a complete list of vices. He has only picked some of the more glaring examples of human failure. Even so, Paul's list is so comprehensive that his main point cannot escape anyone. There is absolutely no person who does not need this free gift of God.
Included in the list of godless humanity's depravity is a reference to homosexual behaviour (1:26, 27).
It is understandable that Paul does not describe explicitly what kind of sexual practices he regards as evil. He can assume that his readers in Rome know what he is talking about. However we are left to wonder whether Paul speaks about homosexual behaviour as such, or whether he takes aim at specific homosexual practices known to him.
Some scholars such as Robin Scroggs suggest that Paul was thinking of one particular same-sex relationship, namely pederasty. Others such as Richard B. Hays think he refers to sexual relations between adult males of equal status.
Pederasty involves two males of unequal status: an adult and a boy. It is a potentially abusive relationship in which the adult, the dominant partner, tends to take advantage of the youth. Martti Nissinen says that when the young lad reached maturity, he would usually marry and have children, and he might become involved in pederasty again, now as the dominant partner.
On the other hand, if Paul had partners of approximately equal status in mind, the particular relationship he addressed could have been one of prostitution or promiscuity, or possibly an arrangement by mutual consent.
Nissinen says that in the Greek world, the phenomenon of same-sex relationships was widespread and appeared in many different forms. Approval and disapproval of these manifestations varied. Some were considered natural, some were tolerated, and others were regarded with disdain.
It is unlikely that Paul could have imagined that a same-sex relationship could ever be one of love, mutual respect, devotion, and life-long commitment. If we today understand homosexual relationships as loving, monogamous partnerships, then there is a real question whether Paul has anything to say about the topic at all.
In Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, Derrick Sherwin Bailey says that in the case of the women, the meaning of "exchange natural relations for unnatural" is not unambiguous either. It is not even clear that female–female relationships are meant. Bailey thinks that Paul has in mind those unconventional forms of intercourse between a man and a woman which Judaism generally rejected because they prevented, or were thought to prevent conception. If that is the case, then Paul may not refer to lesbian behaviour at all.
In the case of the men, there is no doubt that Paul was thinking of same sex relationships. The context in verse 27 makes that quite clear. Paul objects against "men committing shameless acts with men." But are these men gay or straight?
Bailey was the first to argue that Paul should be understood to reject only that homosexual behaviour which constitutes exchanging of what is natural for what is unnatural. He argues that for a homosexual, it is natural to engage in homosexual behaviour, while it is unnatural for such a man to engage in heterosexual behaviour. For a gay man to exchange what is natural for what is unnatural would be to pretend to be straight. Thus, according to Bailey, Paul only rejects homosexual behaviour practised by heterosexuals.
Bailey is often accused of committing an anachronism. Bailey's detractors insist that Paul would never have made such a distinction between gay and straight because this is a modern concept. It would never have occurred to Paul that a person could be gay by nature. Paul condemned every occurrence of same-sex behaviour as unnatural.
Precisely, answers Bailey. Paul cannot be expected to say anything positive or negative about a reality of which he was not aware. As far as Paul was concerned, the only natural sexual relationship is a heterosexual one. This only shows that Paul actually addressed only one side of the issue.
In Making Moral Decisions, Paul Jersild states the matter succinctly, "The passage in Romans clearly assumes that it is heterosexuals who are engaged in homosexual activity as the result of a perverted and lustful desire." Paul clearly assumes that the men gave up natural relations with women. "Paul was not aware of what we today call inversion, or the fact that, for whatever reasons, certain people are constitutionally oriented toward the same sex in the expression of their erotic desire."
The people Paul talks about are heterosexuals who engage in sexual relations with other heterosexuals. That is what Paul considers perverse. This means that Paul does not address the real issue in our discussion.
In any case, we need to remember that Paul is not really talking about ethical matters, either homosexual or heterosexual. The subject matter in Romans 1 is justification by grace through faith.
First, the Romans passage, important as it is, is only one of a number of texts to be considered. Biblical passages must not be interpreted in isolation. What Paul writes to the Romans needs to be seen side by side with Paul's other letters, with the entire New Testament—indeed with Bible as a whole.
Second, each biblical passage must first be interpreted within its own context. One needs to note carefully that the purpose of Romans 1–3 is not to establish how we are to deal with particular human behaviour patterns. The point of the immediate context is best summarized in Romans 2:1, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others."
What Do You Think?
How do you understand the term "unnatural relations" in the Romans passage?
Is Paul referring to lesbian or heterosexual relations, or both? What persuades you to think so?
Does your own careful reading of Romans 1:26f. in its context lead you to conclude that one should differentiate between "less sinful" and "more sinful" human behaviour?
Does such a distinction help or hinder and appropriate understanding of the Romans passage? Why, or why not?
If Paul had been familiar with Christian gays who have made a life-long covenant with each other to live together responsibly, do you think Paul might have approved? What makes you think that he would or would not?
Whether or not Romans 1 pronounces judgment against homosexual behaviour is "a painfully difficult question" according to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America study handbook Talking Together as Christians about Homosexuality. What do you think?