Romans 1.18-32 is the most explicit text in the New Testament that speaks about homosexuality (as we saw the other day, it might even be the only one). It is therefore the text most often used to support the continued exclusion of gay and lesbian Christians from the Church and its sacraments. As such, it’s important to understand it as best as we can, from as many angles as possible, to ensure we are interpreting this text in a way that is both faithful and responsible. As long-time readers will know, I developed what I call an Integral hermeneutical method just for this purpose. It involves five steps: 1. The reader’s experience of reading the text; 2. Who one encounters in the text; 3. What insights we might gain from literary, rhetorical, textual, and historical analysis and study; 4. Challenging the text from the perspectives of those whose story it isn’t telling, or whom it might exclude or ignore; and 5. Putting all the pieces together to leave with an interpretation that is informed and life-giving. I’ve undertaken such a study of Romans 1.18-32 here. While I’ll link to a fuller version (which itself only skims the surface of a lot of the issues), in the interest of time, below is a (still very lengthy) summary.
As a gay Christian who grew up in the Church and reading the Bible, Romans 1.18-32 has had a profound impact on my life. Reading it as a child (I came to understand that I was gay at around the age of 10) left me feeling isolated, God-forsaken, essentially wrong within myself, misunderstood, and judged for something I over which I had no control. The text told a story, ostensibly about people like me, that didn’t seem to fit the realities of my situation, and yet there I was and there it was. At times I responded by giving up on the faith, at other times by trying to ‘fix’ or ignore my sexuality. Both approaches bore bad fruit in every facet of my life.
Looking at the text now, I bring all of this long and difficult history with me, but I have enough space from it to see it with fresher eyes. I certainly don’t come away with answers, but I do leave with fresh questions. The first thing that stands out to me is how the piece about homosexuality (vv. 26-27) seems secondary to what Paul is talking about. It’s an example he’s using to promote a very different argument, namely that Gentiles are rightly under God’s judgment. This makes me wonder more about the argument itself, if there’s more to it than meets the eye. Related to this, because I’ve studied ancient Jewish and pagan philosophy, I notice a lot of familiar turns of phrase that make me wonder what impact these traditions may have had on what he says. None of this means that the rather unflattering description of homosexuality is not there or that it’s any easier to swallow — when you’re part of the group singled out as an example in the text, it still hits hard — but I wonder if it should at least shift how we talk about the passage. And it asks important questions about the nature of Paul’s argument, questions that will form the basis of the rest of this study.
Romans is a letter, so in our ‘Encounter’ step, we meet its sender, the Apostle Paul, and its recipients, the nascent Christian community in Rome. Paul was a prominent Pharisee, from the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, but active in Judea in the early first century. As a Pharisee, he would have been well-educated in contemporary Jewish interpretive techniques. While there was no evidence that he undertook formal philosophical training in any particular school of Greek philosophy, his writing shows a strong familiarity with the ways thinkers of his day, both Jewish and Gentile, thought about the world, humanity, and how they functioned. While originally violently opposed to Christianity, he later became one of its leading proponents across the Mediterranean world, particularly among non-Jewish people. For this reason, he had a great personal stake in understanding questions of Christian identity, and how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could come together in one community of faith. As for the audience of the letter, there is quite a bit of scholarly back-and-forth about the nature of the early Roman church to which Paul was writing. From the tone of the book, it seems most likely that the community was a house church comprised of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, and that they were struggling to get along and find common cause. This issue forms the central theme in Romans.
The questions that seem most relevant to this discussion revolve around the nature of Paul’s argument:
- How does Romans 1.18-32 fit into the overall picture of Romans?
- What is the internal logic of the argument?
- How does this logic compare with other treatments of the theme contemporary to Paul?
Romans’ genre as a letter also gives us some helpful guidelines with how we might understand its structure. Judged from the conventions of first-century letters, we find that the thesis statement of the book is found immediately before this passage: “…the Gospel …is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who is faithful, both Jewish and Greek. For God’s justice is revealed in him, from faith and to faith, as it is written “From faith the just shall live” (1.16-17). Our passage thus marks the transition into the body of the work and the arguments that support the thesis. As one might expect, this first argument sets a common understanding of the problem that needs to be solved. If the answer to the problem is that God has acted to save both Jews and Gentiles alike in one common faith, then the problem would be that both Jews and Gentiles are in need of salvation. And that is exactly what we see in the chunk of Romans that starts with our passage and ends at 3.20:
- 1.18-32: Gentiles have sinned
- 2.1-16: But there is no room for spiritual arrogance
- 2.17-29: Jews have sinned
- 3.1-8: But Jews have had the privilege of receiving God’s oracles
- 3.9-20: Both Gentiles and Jews are in the same position before God.
So, we see how today’s passage fits in with Paul’s argument: It’s the first piece of a broader argument intended to show that, as Romans 3.23 will summarize it, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Whatever our take-away from Romans 1.18-32 may be, we need to remember that it’s in support of this larger aim. Paul is not targeting Gentiles generally, or homosexual Gentiles specifically; he’s arguing that everyone needs salvation.
With this in mind, how does Paul make his argument that Gentiles have sinned and are in need of salvation?
If the book’s overall thesis is found in 1.16-17, the thesis of our passage (and the whole section that lasts through 3.20) is in 1.18: “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven upon every impiety and injustice of people who suppress the truth in their injustice.” One might imagine a new Gentile believer making the excuse that they couldn’t have been expected to live justly because God had not given them the Law. Paul heads this argument off at the pass: the whole world is a kind of divine self-revelation, so they have no excuse (1.20). But even though they could have known God from a proper understanding of creation, they worshiped creation instead of its Creator (1.21-23). This fundamental misunderstanding had important consequences for Gentile life; Paul introduces these with the same formula: “God handed them over”: to idolatry (1.24-25), to their ‘dishonorable passions’ (1.26-27), and to their ‘discredited minds’, which manifests in all sorts of social ills and injustice (1.28-31). Paul ends by confirming the thesis that the Gentiles are therefore rightly under God’s sentence (1.32).
Analyzing the logic of Paul’s argument structure reinforces the fact that, while Paul certainly has a lot to say about homosexuality here, it isn’t really what he’s talking about. It’s a convenient example at hand to support his basic argument that Gentiles have misunderstood God and therefore need salvation. We’ll see in the next section, just how ‘convenient’ an example it was.
Text in Historical and Cultural Context
Understanding the historical and cultural context of the Scriptures is always helpful, but it’s particularly enlightening in the case of Paul’s argument here in the second half of Romans 1. By necessity, the following summary will be extremely cursory; if you’re at all interested, I encourage you to look at the extended post (linked above), and read the materials from the bibliography.
While it’s impossible to fit Paul into any particular school of Hellenistic philosophy, it’s clear that he partook in a common cultural language and understanding of how virtue and vice worked. This language was rooted in Stoic philosophy and, in Hellenistic Judaism, supplemented by the language of the Bible. That Paul uses this terminology isn’t of itself notable, but as we will see, how he uses it is.
The general argument Paul makes against Gentiles is that they have been blinded by their mis-reading of creation so that they have descended into idolatry, abnormal sexual behaviours, and every other kind of vice and injustice. This linking of Gentile sin with idolatry was extraordinarily common in Hellenistic Jewish thinking. Books or writers as varied as the Wisdom of Solomon, the Testament of Judah, Philo of Alexandria, and Josephus all tell basically this same basic story. Philo and Josephus for their parts, explicitly link idolatry with the Greek practice of pederasty, which was the most common and notable type of homosexual relationship in that context. So Paul isn’t just using common words here, but borrowing a whole set of presuppositions and arguments. And, as it happens, even the reference to homosexual liaisons in 1.26-27 is slotted exactly where one would expect to find it from this ‘boilerplate’ Jewish assessment of Gentile life.
The link between idolatry and other sins in this framework was excess, an idea that also lay at the centre of the ‘pop philosophy’ of the day, which was particularly indebted to Stoicism. While Paul only mentions excess in passing in this passage (as one of the sins listed in 1.29), we can see how it works more clearly in a parallel passage, Ephesians 4.17-19:
- The mind (nous) is faulty (cf., the ‘discredited mind (nous)’ in Romans 1.28), thereby
- darkening the intellect (cf. Romans 1.25 where the ‘heart’ is darkened), which
- makes it so that we cannot properly understand our bodily appetites (epithymia, cf. Romans 1.24), leading to
- a confusion of need from want and thereby
- a lack of restraint, or excess (pleonexia, cf. Romans 1.29), which manifests itself in
- unclean (akatharos, cf. Romans 1.24) acts.
This is the sense of “God handed them over to the appetites of their hearts…” (1.24) and “…to their dishonourable passions” (1.26). The ‘passions’ is the blanket term in this framework for the appetites gone awry and is connected to the idea of passivity: to be passionate is to be pushed around by one’s appetites or emotions. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these themes also appeared in the discussion of the meaning of malakos in 1 Corinthians 6.9, which described ‘softness’ as exactly this kind of passivity. Homoeroticism fits into this framework because it was understood to be the result of sexual excess. The first century did not have a concept of sexual orientation as we understand it, but rather only of a basic sexual desire that could manifest in many ways, some ‘natural’ (physike) — the dispassionate, procreation-oriented, male-dominant sex within marriage — and some ‘contrary to nature’ (para physin) — anything else, including womanizing, sex with the woman ‘on top’, and homosexuality. We should be careful not to read too much into the language of ‘contrary to nature’ though; in this ancient framework, it doesn’t carry the same sense of Natural Law that it does to our minds, but rather a sense of what is normal, expected, or conducive to living the good life — Seneca, a rough contemporary of Paul, called such things as hot baths, potted plants, and eating after dark ‘contrary to nature’. And in Romans 11.13-24, Paul refers to the salvation of the Gentiles, which was his life’s work, as similarly being ‘contrary to nature’.
Notice how well this fits with Paul’s argument in our passage: Gentiles have been ‘given over’ to their unrestrained appetites, leading to, among other things, sexual excess that manifests in homoeroticism. That what Paul has in mind excessive rather than inherently distorted sexuality is further demonstrated by how the Church Fathers read the passage. St. John Chrysostom wrote, for example: “You see that the whole desire comes from an excess which cannot contain itself within its proper limits” (Fourth Homily on Romans).
All of this has shown just how strongly Paul is relying on the usual, expected, tropes surrounding Gentiles and homoeroticism in his culture. But there is one thing that sets him apart from the crowd: his inclusion of women in his discussion of sexuality. In a context where female sexuality was generally not thought worthy of consideration and in which women’s status as moral agents was suspect, this is notable! On the flip side, it also prevents an easy one-too-one association of what Paul is talking about with the specific cultural practice of pederasty, which had been the focus of traditional Hellenistic Jewish attacks on Gentile sexual practices.
None of this changes what Paul says. According to Romans 1.26-27, homoerotic activity is a manifestation of the ultimate Gentile sin of misunderstanding creation. Full stop. But, this cultural context does demonstrate that Paul is not introducing some unique or inherently Christian teaching here. Rather, he is trafficking in the customary beliefs about sex and gender of his time, and these beliefs are not grounded in Scripture or in the revelation of Jesus, but in pagan philosophy and the ways Hellenized Jews used it to serve their theological interests and agendas. And he does this to serve the broader goal of uniting all of humanity into the same category, as sinners in need of salvation.
This step is largely about asking uncomfortable questions of us and the text. It becomes particularly challenging in a text like this, where there are clear cultural differences at work. The biggest questions that need to be asked here are:
- Whose story is being told and who is telling it? And why? Who is excluded from this process?
- Does the story make sense from what we know of human behaviour?
- Does Paul’s dependence on Hellenistic philosophical concepts make those concepts and ideas also authoritative for us?
Storytelling: Jews and Gentiles
In Romans 1.18-32, Paul is telling a Jewish story about what’s wrong with Gentiles. And as we’ve seen, he does this by trafficking in a common, shared story from within the Jewish community. But it seems that Paul is doing something really smart here. By repeating the common Jewish story about Gentiles, he can rile up his Jewish audience before flipping the script on them in the next chapter, where he emphasizes that everyone does those same things and so everyone deserves the same fate, whether they are under the Law or not (2.1-16). One interesting thing about the story Paul tells about Gentiles is that he could have told exactly the same story about Jewish history. For, the whole Old Testament is a story of how those who were under the Law kept on falling under the sway of idolatry and suffered the consequences. So while Paul is telling a Jewish story about Gentiles, he’s really telling a Jewish story about humanity, as chapter 2 reminds them. I don’t think we’d be off the mark, then, to call Paul’s telling of this story ‘ironic’: He’s using a story usually told to separate one community from another in the interests of uniting them under one story. (We saw him use a similar tactic in Ephesians 2 to make the same point.)
Storytelling: Virtue and Vice
Tightly connected to Paul’s Jewish story about Gentiles is a ‘pop philosophical’ story about vice and virtue. Drawn primarily from Stoicism, but becoming a broader shared story in the Roman period, this says that vice, or sin, is the result of a confused mind that can’t discern needs and wants, causing us to spiral down an unending vortex of excess. It’s clear from both Ephesians 4-5 and Romans 1 that Paul bought into this story, at least enough to use it when it suited him.
But is it true? After about 150 years of scientific and social scientific observation, does this story comport with what we’ve learned about human behaviour? On the one hand, there do seem to be some areas of alignment. The biggest that comes to mind is the ‘hedonic treadmill,’ the body’s rapid adaptation to pleasure, so that it takes more and more of a stimulus to achieve the same sensations. This is most clearly demonstrated in the processes behind addiction, but is a general rationale for why hedonism — the centering of pleasure as the highest value — is a bad idea, or at least needs to be constrained (as it was in the early Roman Empire’s other major philosophical system, Epicureanism, which centered pleasure but avoided ‘highs’). And, considering our culture of excess, in which we are literally consuming the resources of several ‘Earths’ a year, growing fat on unhealthy foods, and have so many things that we have warehouses dedicated to storing possessions we don’t have room for, it seems to me that this story might be particularly beneficial in our circumstances.
But this ancient story also played on misogynistic gender stereotypes. To ‘be a man’ was to be dominant and in control, to be a woman was to be dominated and carried away by emotions and appetites. What made homoeroticism suspect was that the ancients could not conceive of sex as something that could happen between equals; it was inconceivable for a woman to ‘play the man’s part’ in sex and it was a betrayal of masculinity to ‘play the woman’s’ part. The linkage between masculinity and virtue and femininity and vice not only justified patriarchal domination (which Genesis puts as part of the fallen, not created or redeemed order), but simultaneously makes masculinity into something fragile, that must be reasserted time and time again, at others’ expense — which is the opposite of the heart of God as revealed in the Prophets and Gospel. That Paul mentions women’s sexuality here shows that he was tweaking this story a bit, so that women’s moral actions were now worth consideration. But we have very good Gospel reasons for pushing that much further and for working to tear down harmful gender stereotypes. If we are going to perpetuate ancient stories about how the world works, we need to put them through the refiner’s fire to ensure we are using them well and responsibly for the benefit of everyone — including the 52% of humanity that is female.
Storytelling: On Homosexuality and Homoeroticism
The big, culturally accepted, story Paul was telling about Gentiles includes a smaller story, a case study about homoeroticism, as one particular outflow of the excess caused by the disordered mind. This story makes several claims that need to be unpacked.
First, Paul’s appeal to the created order implies that homosexuality is not found in creation. But when we look at the world, homosexuality is very common, documented in over 150 species and playing a wide range of roles, from establishing domination hierarchies, through improving social cohesion through togetherness and play, to life-long pair-bonding that can even include the raising of babies. So if we follow Paul’s lead and look at creation, we see that homosexuality is part of the created order and can be directed towards any number of aims, ranging from the violent to the nurturing. In other words, it looks a lot like heterosexuality.
The second claim is that homosexuality is the result of an ‘exchange’ of sexual desire, away from the opposite to the same sex. But, while conceptions of sexuality change from culture to culture, it does seem that human sexuality exists along a continuum, ranging from exclusive heterosexual attraction to exclusive homosexual attraction, with a significant number of people at some place in the middle. This means that the argument Paul has borrowed from his culture is based on a faulty assumption: Most people who engage in homoeroticism are not ‘exchanging’ anything, because you cannot exchange what you don’t have. Paul thinks he’s talking about a process that could play out for anyone and everyone. But since it appears that his premise is wrong, it ends up targeting a subset of humanity instead of uniting humanity in one condition.
The third claim is that homosexuality arises from sexual excess, out of sexual boredom. This is largely precluded by our idea of sexual orientation, which finds that homosexuality is generally something that arises in childhood and is persistent and resistant to change throughout one’s life. This was certainly my experience: My orientation was established before any physical signs of puberty and resisted thirteen years of active, multi-faceted efforts to quash it or change it. (This is not to say that nobody comes to homoerotic activity through a kind of ‘novelty kink’, but this is rare and far from the norm, and such people generally still identify as predominantly straight.) At any rate, for most gay and lesbian people, their sexuality arises well before they engage in any sexual activity, or are even aware of what sex is, so the connection of homoeroticism with excessive sexuality is completely off the mark for those most impacted by these verses.
Finally, it makes the claim, at least by inference, that a ‘redeemed’ and healed mind, since it is no longer ‘taken in’ by ‘the passions’, will no longer be led into homoeroticism. This is perhaps the most damaging claim for queer Christians. While some individuals do report that God has ‘healed them’ of their homosexuality, this is not the case for the vast majority of gay and lesbian Christians. Most of us prayed fervently for years or decades, tried whatever spiritual practice or therapy we were able to find, trusting that God would change us, and found that our sexuality continued unchanged. Even in cases of radical transformations of affect and character following conversion, sexual orientation is, for the vast majority of us, impervious to such transformation. This inference of the story Paul’s story is, on the whole, not borne out by the real-world experience of gay Christians.
The point is this: Paul was using a common understanding in his culture of how homoeroticism worked. This understanding is by every measure not representative of the experiences of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. It’s a faulty story that does not account for the real, lived experiences of those it purports to be explaining. Some may argue that Paul is not talking about individuals here, but about humanity writ large — an origin story for how homosexuality arose in society, not in specific people. But this doesn’t make it much better; for those whose lives are impacted by it, it means that we’re ‘born in prison’ with no path to freedom.
At any rate, once again, I’m reminded that the point Paul is trying to make, and which this example is supposed to support, is that everyone is in the same boat. So we should be careful not to interpret the passage ways that targets some people but lets others off the hook, since they weren’t inclined to do it anyway,
Conclusions from the ‘Challenge’ Step
This section has posed a number of questions to the story Paul tells in Romans 1.18-32. On some counts, the story fares okay: He’s using an anti-Gentile story ironically as part of a goal to unite Jewish and Gentile Christians. And the general idea of Stoic thought that we can get easily distracted by things or appetites and lose control over our actions and cease to be the people we want to, or were created to be, seems to have a lot of truth in it. But the ancients’ association of such loss of control with femininity does not hold up to scrutiny and we would do well to excise any remnant of such assumptions from our belief systems. And, most importantly for the purposes of this series, Paul’s story makes a series of false assumptions and claims about homosexuality — at least as it is experienced today. He supported his argument bringing Jews and Gentiles together by unwittingly making recourse to an example that, while convincing to his intended audience, doesn’t actually work, and in our context ends up dividing rather than uniting people.
This final step in the Integral hermeneutical method is to bring things together in a way that is faithful, responsible, and expansive. How does the interpretation of this passage that has emerged in this process meet these criteria? In some ways it’s hard to answer this question, since this process has raised more questions than it has provided answers.
As a Christian, I want the Gospel to do its transforming work in every area of my life, sexuality included. That is no different now that I affirm and can delight in my sexuality than it was when I was desperately praying to deaf ears for God to change it. And so my goal in approaching Romans 1.18-32 is not to explain it away, but to find a way of living into it and its intention that is life-giving and bears good fruit. The interpretation that has emerged through this process does just this in a few ways.
First, it shifts the focus away from the problematic case study to where it rightly belongs, to the point all this is written to support: that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3.23). To leave Romans 1 with the idea that “gays are disordered, straight people are rightly ordered” is actually far less faithful reading than what I’m proposing here, because the last thing Paul is trying to do is to divide humanity into insiders and outsiders. Paul’s argument is that we are all disordered in our own ways, but, ultimately, that we are all loved and all within the scope of God’s grace. That is the message of Romans and that is what Romans 1.18-32 contributes to it.
Further, by calling attention to both the ways this text fails to account for the ways queer people actually experience our sexuality and the ways the text is based in an ancient misogynistic pop philosophy, it expands our awareness of the text, its history, and the world around us and opens the door for us to have different conversations in the Church around both gender and sexuality.
By turning the attention away from the question of whether homosexuality itself is sinful or not, it also allows gay and lesbian Christians to face the far more compelling and challenging questions of how to use our sexuality wisely and in ways that honour the values of God’s kingdom. To paraphrase Paul, it allows us to move beyond the question of “Is this permitted?” to the more important questions of “Is this edifying?” and “Am I being controlled by this?” (1 Corinthians 6:12). And in this way, it can bear much better fruit in the lives of queer Christians than a strict, quixotic prohibition. As it happens, this also makes the passage newly relevant to straight Christians, since the questions of control and excess in sexuality that Paul asks here are just as applicable to them.
This has been a very long journey, and despite the thousands of words this exercise has taken, I still left the majority of the ancient evidence and some supporting arguments on the cutting room floor. But I hope it’s been beneficial. Romans 1.18-32 is a rich text with an internal structure that poses a lot of difficult questions, none of which have easy answers. But Paul’s intent was not to mark a small subset of humanity as uniquely sinful, but to unite everyone in our shared status as people whose natural drives, appetites, and emotions can cause miss the mark and break faith with each other and God. And that should be the main take away whenever we read this text.
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