Does Romans 1 Condemn Homosexuality?
By Robin Schumacher
There are many in today's culture that do not recognize the Bible as any kind of moral authority, especially on the matter of homosexuality. It should come as no surprise that atheists and skeptics hold this position; for example, the late Christopher Hitchens once remarked, "What do I care what some Bronze Age text says about homosexuality?" As noted apologist William Lane Craig has observed, "One of the best ways to defend the legitimacy of the homosexual lifestyle is to become an atheist."
There are, however, a number of practicing homosexuals and activists who are not atheists and argue that the Bible legitimizes general homosexual behavior. Their core argument is that the Bible has been misunderstood and misinterpreted where homosexuality is concerned.
Let's be honest: if they're right, and God's Word really does not condemn homosexual behavior, then a whole lot of angst and effort that's occurring in churches and society could disappear in a flash. But the $64,000 question is, are they correct?
There are six primary passages of Scripture that reference homosexuality: Genesis 19:4-9; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Of these, I've personally seen more debate over the Romans passage than any other, with only the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah coming close in regard to heated discussion.
Does Paul's passage in Romans 1 (specifically Romans 1:18-32) condemn homosexuality or not? Let's take a close look at the key pro-homosexual arguments that say it does not and then perform a brief exegesis of the passage to see if the positions are correct.
Primary arguments against Romans 1 condemning homosexuality
Almost all espousing a positive homosexual theology admit that Paul is condemning some sort of homosexual behavior in Romans 1. It's clear that a plain reading of the passage displays some kind of censure in that regard.
That being the case, pro-homosexual advocates say Paul is only denouncing certain types of homosexual activity. The three most common assertions put forward are these:
Argument #1 – Paul is condemning homosexual acts that occur in conjunction with idol worship.
Those supporting homosexuality argue that vv. 23 & 25 of Romans 1 set the context of the passage to be one purely of idolatry. They say the verses following 23 & 25 that concern homosexuality are to be understood as occurring during the lewd sexual rites that often accompanied idol worship (e.g. shrine prostitution).
Taking this position, Troy Perry writes: "The homosexual practices cited in Romans 1:24-27 were believed to result from idolatry and are associated with some very serious offenses as noted in Romans 1. Taken in this larger context, it should be obvious that such acts are significantly different that loving, responsible lesbian and gay relationships seen today."
Argument #2 – Paul is condemning homosexual acts with children.
A second argument says that Paul is addressing the topic of pederasty (homosexual sex between men and boys). Such a thing was sadly not uncommon back in the first century, and so homosexual proponents argue that this is the behavior Paul is speaking to.
Argument #3 – Paul is condemning "unnatural" homosexuality.
Another interpretation of homosexual supporters is that Paul is condemning heterosexuals acting in an ‘unnatural' way as homosexuals. For example, John Boswell says: "The persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The whole point of Romans 1, in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were once on."
While there are other arguments homosexual supporters employ to deny that Paul is condemning the general practice of homosexual behavior in Romans 1, the above three arguments appear to be the most widely circulated.
Again, though, the question is, are they correct?
A Brief Examination of Romans 1
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans most likely from Corinth (cf. Rom. 16:1; Cenchrea was a port city in Corinth), a city widely known for its sinful sexual practices. In chapter 1, after making a number of introductory remarks in vv. 1-17, the Apostle turns his attention to the consequences that come from rejecting God and His truth from vs. 18 all the way through Chapter 3.
In vs. 19, Paul says each person innately/naturally knows there is a Creator, and then in vs. 20, he makes a subtle cosmological and teleological defense of God's existence by saying that God's divine fingerprints are all over creation so that no one can say they were unaware of the Creator; all are "without excuse" (vs. 20). Paul's statements here echo Psalm 19:1-2, which says: "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge."
Unfortunately, says Paul, humanity has rejected God's truth, and in vv. 21-23, the Apostle describes how humankind has "exchanged" (vs. 23) the naturally given worship of the true God for the unnatural and false worship of idols. The connection between the lists of idols Paul gives in vs. 23 and the classes of creation described in Genesis 1:20–25 is definitely not by accident. Neither is the obvious link between Paul's use of the words "image" and "form" (or "likeness") and the well-known statement in Genesis: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…" (Gen. 1:26).
Because of this rejection, Paul says there are two broad judgments laid down by God. Three times in Romans 1 (vv. 24, 26, 28) Paul says God "gave them over" to sin, and three times (vv. 23, 25, 26) he says the end results were that the people "exchanged" a good thing for something sinful, which served as their punishment.
As a quick aside: we oftentimes think that when we sin and nothing happens (no lightning bolt strikes, etc.) that God either didn't care or didn't notice. However, Romans 1 tells us that the first stage of God's wrath is actually not to discipline or correct the person, but rather He abandons the individual, giving them up to their sin. His initial wrath and judgment results, as Paul says, in them "receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error" (vs. 27).
In vs. 24, Paul makes the initial mention of the first judgment: a sexual sin that is a consequence of the rebellion described earlier: "Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them." The reading of this text is unmistakable – God delivered the people over to sexual lust (the word "impurity" is akatharsia in the Greek, which literally means immorality; a state of moral corruption), a kind that resulted in their bodies being ‘shamed'.
What kind of moral corruption and shame? Paul explicitly tells us: "God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error" (Rom. 1:26–27).
There is no mistaking Paul here; the reference is clearly to the practice of lesbianism and male homosexuality.
The second judgment is one of that also results from the people not acknowledging God and His truth – a corrupt mind: "And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful" (Rom. 1:28–31).
In summary, Romans 1:18-31 deals with the fact that God has innately made Himself known to humanity, but He has been rejected and replaced by other objects of worship. Because of this, God has delivered two judgments: one of homosexual behavior and another of an immoral mind, each of which demonstrates His ‘abandonment' wrath toward humanity's rebellion.
Just a cursory view of the present state of the world validates that these judgments continue to be handed down today.
Examining the Pro-Homosexual Arguments
Let's now briefly revisit the three primary arguments that say Paul is not condemning ‘natural and loving homosexual relationships' in Romans 1. We can quickly dispense with the second argument of pederasty as Paul does not mention children at all, but instead specifically says: "men with men committing indecent acts" (vs. 27).
The first and third arguments can be taken at the same time because they somewhat blend together. While interpreting Scripture with a key to the historical backdrop is a worthy exercise in which to engage, in this case the pro-homosexual interpreter is creating linkages between the text and history that have no evidence of support in Paul's text. Indeed, shrine and homosexual prostitution certainly existed in the first century, but there is no explicit textual evidence in Romans 1 that indicates Paul is referring to that. He simply cites homosexuality as degrading, a judgment of God, and adds nothing more.
Further, the argument of linking homosexuality and idol worship is also unsustainable due to the fact that it would involve extending the argument to vv. 28-31. In other words, if the context is maintained, and homosexual behavior is moral outside of idol worship, then all the other sins listed that result from a depraved mind (vs. 28) must also be deemed right and good apart from idolatry. It is difficult to see how anyone could support such a position.
The argument of homosexual sex performed in conjunction with idol worship and/or shrine prostitution is clearly one of eisegesis (reading into the text a person's presuppositions and agenda), as is the idea that Paul is addressing ‘unnatural' homosexuality vs. one that is ‘natural'. Why think this assertion is true?
Let's first ask the question: why does Paul specifically cite homosexuality vs. all the other sexual sins that were committed at the time? The reason he does this is because it follows his argument from nature that begins in vs. 19. Paul is saying that in the same way people naturally know God by instinct, with creation itself demonstrating God's existence through what He's made, people naturally and instinctively know right sexual practice because of how the human body is made.
In other words, Paul's argument is that when people abandon God and His ways to any unnatural worship (which can include any invented deity, including distortions of the true God), God can abandon them to the lusts in their heart and the unnatural sexual practice of homosexuality. Just as creation is "clearly seen" leaving the unbeliever "without excuse" (vs. 20), it is also "plain" (Greek: phaneros, meaning "clear", vs. 19) from the way God made human bodies how sex should naturally be carried out. Man complements woman and vice versa and this is true anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically.
Those championing a pro-homosexual theology are right in that Paul is making an argument of what's natural and unnatural, but they are in error as to the crux of the argument itself. It is one where the Apostle is arguing that, just as God created humanity in a natural way (i.e. it is "within them", vs. 19) to know and acknowledge Him as the Creator vs. any false deity, He created humanity to innately know and acknowledge natural (heterosexual) sex as true and not homosexuality. Just as idolatry is contrary to what God intended when He created humanity, so too homosexuality is contrary to nature in that it does not represent what God intended when He made men and women with physical bodies that have a ‘natural' way of interacting with each other and a ‘natural' desire for the opposite sex.
In the end, the three primary arguments used by homosexual proponents to say Paul is disapproving only of specific homosexual behavioral types and not homosexual behavior in general fail when analyzed against the actual text of Romans 1.
This being the case, I find it important to say something to those wishing to support a homosexual lifestyle through texts such as the first chapter of Romans:
It can't be done.
No set of interpretative gymnastics or arguments of how certain words in the original languages don't mean what they mean in our translations will ever make the text fit the lifestyle for which you want Scripture's approval. This is true of Romans 1 and every other passage in God's Word that mentions homosexuality.
I know this makes you angry and that you disagree with me on my analysis of the Romans 1 text and probably most everything I've said thus far. But, I hope that what we can agree on is that the truth about this topic matters, and it matters a lot.
If homosexual behavior is a sin in the eyes of God, and you believe that it is not, what you believe won't matter in the end. Paul makes this clear in another letter of his: "Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
All that will matter is God's truth and the truth about the consequences of homosexual behavior. Believe me when I say, I desperately don't want you to experience that end. Instead, I want how Paul finishes his thought in the first Corinthian letter to be true of you: "Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God." (1 Cor. 6:11, my emphasis).
It's my hope and prayer that you consider what's been presented, seek God in prayer, and ask Him to reveal His truth to you.
Image Credit: kfergos; "Bible Study"; Creative Commons