Romans 1.18-32 is the most explicit text in the New Testament condemning homosexuality. 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. First, it takes into account the reader’s experience of reading the text; 2. Then it looks at who one encounters in the text; 3. Third, it explores what insights we might gain from literary, rhetorical, textual, and historical analysis and study; 4. Fourth, it challenges the text from the perspectives of those whose story it isn’t telling, or whom it might exclude or ignore; and 5. Fifth, it puts all the pieces together to leave with an interpretation that is informed and life-giving.
Today I’m going to apply this method to this most controversial of texts. This is a longer version posted for the sake of completeness, but a shorter summary post has also been posted. Please do also look into the resources listed in the bibliography.
First, let’s look at the text itself (translation mine):
(1.18) For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven upon every impiety and injustice of people who suppress the truth in their injustice. (19) For what is knowable about God is clear to them, since God has revealed it to them. (20) For what is invisible to them — that is, God’s eternal power and divinity — has been visible and understandable from the creation of the kosmos in the things God has made, so they are without excuse. (21) But knowing God, they did glorify or give thanks to God as God, but rather became futile in their reasoning and their senseless hearts were darkened. (22) Thinking they were wise, they became foolish, (23) and they exchanged the glory of the indestructible God for something destructible in the shape of a person, or birds, animals, or reptiles.
(24) Therefore, God handed them over to the appetites of their hearts, to the uncleanness of dishonoring their bodies with others, (25) exchanging God’s truth for a lie, and worshiped and served what was created instead of the maker, who is blessed until all eternity, Amen! (26) Therefore, God handed them over to their dishonourable passions: For their females exchanged their natural function for what is outside of nature, (27) and likewise, the males, leaving their natural function with women, burned in their desire for one another, males committing obscenity with males and receiving in themselves the proper penalty for their error. (28) And just as they did not see fit to hold God in their understanding, God handed them over to their discredited minds, to do what they shouldn’t: (29) filled with every injustice, evil, excess, and wickedness, full of envy, murder, contention, deceit, and poor character, they are gossips, (30), slanderers, they despise God, they are arrogant, boastful, pretentious, they concoct wicked schemes, are disobedient to their parents, (31) foolish, bound by no relationship, without affection, and merciless. (32) Though they know what God has declared right — that all who do these things are deserving of death, not only do they still do them, but they applaud those who do them.
In his wonderful book, Wrestling with God and Men, Rabbi Steven Greenberg tells the story of his relationship with Leviticus 18 as an Orthodox Jew and a gay man. One of the most powerful moments in his journey was the day he stopped trying to hide from the text and got up and read it in the assembly. It was the moment when he stood up and accepted his summons, his call to adventure. As a gay Christian who grew up in the Church and reading the Bible, I had a similar journey with Romans 1.18-29. It’s been a text that has had a profound impact on my life, at times destroying my faith, at other times alienating me from my sexuality and my body, creating a rift within me. It was a long time before I had the courage to face up to it in earnest — to stop either falling passively before it or rejecting it completely, and engage with it, wrestle with it, and, come to terms with it.
My first memory of this text comes from when I was twelve or thirteen years old. By this point, I’d known I was gay for a couple of years and was feeling unsettled about what that would mean for me. I was in confirmation classes and had just been gifted a Bible with an subject index for the first time. (I’m old enough that this was before the Internet.) I remember my hands trembling as I looked up ‘homosexuality’ and was directed to the end of Romans 1. And I remember the combination of both despair and confusion that set in upon reading its words.
Despair: Was this how God saw me, as filled with ‘every kind of injustice and evil’? It was, as far as I could understand, just who I was. It wasn’t something I chose, something I wanted, sought out or even something I’d done. It felt as part of me as my brown hair and left-handedness.
Confusion: How did I fit into the story it was telling? I was just a kid, how could I be under this sentence for the crime of idolatry? Was I really that blind to how God was revealed in the world? I read my Bible, took the teachings of Jesus seriously, went to Church every Sunday. I tried to live well. What more could I do? What more could I have done?
Reading Romans 1.18-31 as a child left me feeling isolated, God-forsaken, essentially wrong within myself, inherently misunderstood, and judged for something I didn’t think I’d done. The text told a story that didn’t seem to fit and yet there I was and there it was.
My faith did not survive.
A few years later, when I’d had a dramatic experience of God that renewed my faith, I simply accepted Romans 1 as a given. I thought maybe it wasn’t about me personally — not a personal origin story of my sexuality but a general statement about how it developed in humanity. But, personal or not, I was still under its sentence. It felt a bit like being born in jail, imprisoned for other people’s long-ago sins that had nothing to do with me but had everything to do with my life. But I pushed on. I ‘separated the sin from the sinner’; I was ‘like that’ but I didn’t need to ‘act’ ‘like that.’ But the flip side of that was that the cognitive dissonance of essentially being told that (and I apologize in advance for the ableism of these analogies) it was okay to be blind but still being expected to see, or that it was not a problem to be confined to a wheelchair, but I was certainly not to expect the world to accommodate it.
Romans 1 always hovered in the background of my life, like a dark cloud obscuring the sun on a summer day. It’s a strange thing to live feeling targeted, judged, and marginalized by Scriptures that are supposed to be holy, beautiful and life-giving. While I accepted the story of Romans 1, I never read it. It was too hard, too painful, too full of cognitive dissonance even on my best days when God felt near and my life sustainable.
While following the Scriptures generally bore wonderful fruit in my life, following this passage didn’t. (More cognitive dissonce.) Rejecting it at the start of my teens had born bad fruit and yet accepting its sentence upon my life also bore bad fruit. I was at war with myself. My sexuality and libido became enemies to be defeated. I grew so angry at myself and frustrated with God every time I had a setback. Over time, I became disconnected from my body as I fought against its natural impulses, and this in turn eventually led to chronic pains in my back and shoulders. I felt false in every relationship I had, like I had to hide who I was. I’d been told that if I were to focus on communion with God, communion with myself would follow, but on this front at least, the opposite was true. This was the fruit of living in passive acceptance of the word on the page.
Years later, in the ‘after’ of my life’s before-and-after, I came to approach the text again. I brought all of this long and difficult history with me, but I had enough space from it to see it with fresher eyes. I certainly didn’t come away with answers, but I came away from it with fresh questions.
The first thing that stood out to me is how the passage fits into the structure of the book as a whole. Irrespective of what Paul thought about homosexuality, it seemed clear that that wasn’t what he was actually talking about. He was trying to put Jewish and Gentile Christians on the same page, trying to show that both are sinful and saved by the same divine grace. Homosexuality just gets thrown in as an example to support his argument about Gentiles. Why was my life being so governed by what seemed to be a convenient example to support one point of a bigger argument about something completely different? This also raised questions about Paul’s argument itself. Why does he argue the way he does here? And, does the argument hold up to scrutiny? What’s the story he’s telling? Where did it come from? And, what’s his purpose in telling it?
More to the point, if, as Jesus taught, truth is known by the good that it accomplishes in the world and in our lives, and using the text as I had had accomplished nothing but bad things in my own life and in the lives of so many others, what does that mean for the text? I never want to ‘explain away’ a text — I don’t want to read the Scriptures in a way that lets us off the hook for anything — but is there a different way of reading it that could be life-giving for me?
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 wondered 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 Integral 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 by the end of Jesus’ earthly life. 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 the movement that arose around the figure of Jesus following his death, after a miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus, he 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.
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. One interesting conjecture is that the crisis precipitated around the return of Jewish Christians to the city after their expulsion by the Emperor Claudius (49 CE) to find their church completely transformed by its new Gentile leaders and members. At any rate, it seems safe to conclude that this was a mixed community struggling to come together.
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, the structure of Romans looks something more-or-less like this:
- Greetings (1.1-7)
- Introduction (1.8-15): Prayer of thanksgiving that introduces the theme of Paul’s desire to encourage the Roman Christians, both in letter and, later, in person.
- Thesis (1.16-17): “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. For it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who is faithful, both Jewish (first of all) 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.”
- Arguments (1.18-15.13)
- Exhortation (15.14-21): Paul trusts that the Roman Christians will receive his message of the salvation of the Gentiles, which has been confirmed by signs and wonders.
- Conclusion (15.22-16.27)
This structure helps us to situate this passage. It follows directly after the letter’s thesis statement, and thus marks the transition into the body of the work and the arguments that support the thesis. As the first argument, we would expect it to set a common understanding of the problem that needs to be solved. We can therefore reverse engineer the logic and see what we might expect to find. If the answer to the problem (thesis of the letter) 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, 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 instead misunderstood the grandeur in creation and worshiped it 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). Whether these are intended to be sequential (each building on the last) or parallel (all are equally manifestations of the same problem) is an open question. To me, it seems best to choose the latter option because there are two fatal flaws in the former: First, the third example is introduced by “they did not see fit to hold God in their understanding,” which refers back to the error in reading creation in v. 21-23, not to their sexual behavior (v.26-27); and second, if the manifestations are supposed to build off of one another, it would be arguing that every single is ‘caused’ by homosexuality, which would be a pretty bizarre and extreme claim. So then, I think it’s most sensible to treat these three — idolatry, homosexuality, and a twisted thinking that leads to sins of all kinds — as parallel problems from the root cause of mistaking the created world for God, which is the quintessential Gentile sin from which everything else flows. 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. For there is almost nothing ‘new’ in this material’ rather it uses the the basic, shared, ‘boilerplate’, understandings of idolatry and vice common to Hellenistic and Roman Jewish culture.
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. 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 Septuagint, the version of the Bible used widely by Jews of the Mediterranean diaspora. Terms used in this passage, including ‘appetite’ (epithymia, 1.24) ‘uncleanness’ (akatharsia, 1.24), ‘passions’ (pathe, 1.26), ‘natural’ (physike, physis, 1.26, 27), ‘desire’ (orexis, 1.27) ‘obscenity’ (askhemosyne, 1.27), and ‘what should be done’ (kathekonta, 1.28), are all part of this cultural vocabulary. If it were just a matter of vocabulary, this wouldn’t be interesting, but the way he deploys it in his argument demonstrates his almost complete dependence on this larger tradition, and all the baggage it brings with it.
Gentiles in the Hellenistic Jewish Understanding
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 every type 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 the same story: Gentiles misunderstood creation and worshiped idols instead of God and from this error got caught in all kinds of sin, especially sexual sin. Philo and Josephus for their parts, explicitly link idolatry with the Greek practice of pederasty, which involved a creepy (to our sensibilities) combination of education, mentorship, and sex between an adult male and a younger male in his teens to early twenties. So it isn’t that Paul is just using common words here, but he’s using the exact same argument as his Jewish contemporaries and near-contemporaries used when talking about Gentiles. He isn’t introducing new teaching, but is making use of a shared set of presuppositions of the Hellenistic Jewish subculture about Gentiles. 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’ assessment of Gentile life.
Excess and Homoeroticism
The link between idolatry and other sins in this Hellenistic Jewish imagination was excess. And here it connects with Hellenistic thought as a whole, which was on this point 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 fits into this general scheme in Ephesians 4.17-19, where 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, unclean (akatharos, cf. Romans 1.24) acts motivated by excess (pleonexia, cf. Romans 1.29). 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 an important word here. It is the blanket term in common Hellenistic and Roman (and later Patristic Christian) framework for understanding human behaviour for the appetites gone awry. While Paul here talks about dishonourable passions, the opposite of this is not honorable passions — that would be a contradiction in terms in this framework — but passionlessness. It’s helpful at this point to connect passion, not with the idea of heat and excitement that the word connotes in English, but with passivity: To be passionate was to be passively pushed around by one’s appetites or emotions.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we talked about this earlier this week in the discussion of the meaning of malakos, which referred to ‘softness’ in exactly this passive way, unable to withstand the vicissitudes of embodied life. In the hyper-patriarchal Roman world, such softness was equated with effeminacy, while self-control was the hallmark of masculinity. As Cicero wrote, “Rule yourself … [and do not] do anything in a base, timid, ignoble, slavelike, or womanish way” (Tusculan Dis. 2.53f). In similar way, Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, wrote of his desire to “do nothing outside of control, nothing effeminately” (Epist. 67.4).
So how does homoeroticism fit into this? Essentially, the ancient world had no concept of sexual orientation. (Intriguingly, Aristotle might have been onto something like it, but his thought was largely ignored until much later.) There was simply sexuality, which could be directed in any number of ways. The ‘normal’ (what Paul describes here as physike) sexual expression was related to the reasonable, ‘passionless’ sex within a marriage in the hopes of conceiving children, with the active male penetrating a passive female. Anything outside of this, whether excessively chasing after women, having sex with your wife with her ‘on top’, or having sex with men, was outside the bounds of ‘normal’ (here, para physin), rational, self-controlled, ‘masculine’ behaviour. In this context, homoeroticism was conceived of as an expression of sexual boredom more than anything: not as a ‘disordered sexuality’ but as sexuality lacking control. For example, Dio Chrysostom, a Stoic writing about a generation after Paul, wrote:
The man whose appetite is insatiate in [sex with women], when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given — in fact, too utterly feminine — and will turn his assault against the male quarters … believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure. (Discourses 7)
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, “You see that the whole desire comes from an excess which cannot contain itself within its proper limits” (Fourth Homily on Romans); similarly, St. Augustine quotes an earlier Father in concluding from this passage that “He who is moderate in what is natural makes good use of it; but he who does not observe moderation abuses a good thing” (On Marriage and Concupiscence 2).
Natural and Unnatural
Before leaving this section, we have to address Paul’s use of the idea of what is ‘natural’ (physike) and ‘contrary to nature’ (para physin). For us, the idea of what is ‘natural’ comes with it a sense of ‘natural law’; this is heightened by this passage’s insistence that humanity should be able to know God from the created world. But we have to be cautious about this, because it’s not really now it was used in the first century. In this context, what is physike is less what is ‘in accordance with biological nature’ than it is ‘expected, normal, or conventional’ in terms of the good life. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11.13ff, Paul refers to men having long hair as being ‘unnatural’. This goes against not only physical reality — without active interference, men have long hair — but also against the many Old Testament passages that praise men with long hair. In a similar way, Seneca refers to hot baths, potted plants, and feasting at night as ‘against nature’. So the idea is far more about custom and expectation than ‘natural law’.
In the context of the argument of Romans 1, we’re talking about expectations surrounding gender roles. As Matthew Vines put it, it’s about “patriarchy not plumbing” (God and the Gay Christian, 108). It’s telling that among the Church Fathers, Romans 1.26 was commonly interpreted not as talking about women having sex with women but women being ‘on top’ of a man! What is ‘natural’ is for the man to be dominant and the woman to be passive.
We also need to be careful before reading too much into the language of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in Romans 1 because Paul revisits this language in Romans 11, when talking about the salvation of the Gentiles. There, in a lengthy metaphor describing the Gentiles as a branch grafted from one tree onto another, he writes:
…For if you have been cut from what is by nature [kata physin] a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature [para physin], into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree. (11.24)
So, Paul himself, in the same letter, calls the Gentiles’ salvation — the very thing to which he has dedicated his life — ‘contrary to nature’ in exactly the same way as he describes homoeroticism in chapter 1. What we have with the use of ‘natural’ and ‘contrary to nature’ is not about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but about what is expected versus what is unexpected. Certainly, what is expected is generally understood as being right, but not always.
The point of all of this has been to show 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. While far from a great feminist victory here, it does demonstrate that Paul understood women as moral agents, capable of being on- or off-track as much as men were. In a context where female sexuality was generally not thought worthy of consideration, 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 diatribes against Gentile sexual practices.
Concluding thoughts for the ‘Explore’ Section
This has been a very long discussion and barely scratches the surface of the material. (Please do check out the resources in the bibliography for more information and fuller discussions.) But were does all this leave us? 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.
What one chooses to do with this information is largely going to depend on one’s presuppositions about what Scripture is and is meant to do. In a Fundamentalist understanding, wherein the text is just the text — flattened, a-historical, and wholly infallible and authoritative in exactly the same way across the board — these considerations are largely irrelevant. But that is just one way of looking at Scripture, and historically speaking, not a common or traditional one. If we understand the Scriptures as both authoritative and as historical documents, this opens up texts like Romans 1.18-32 in interesting ways. Rather than reading it as a highly questionable origin story of homosexuality, it becomes a text in which Paul uses the common beliefs of his time and place to get his audience on board, in order to further his argument that Gentiles are in need of salvation, which is itself one prong of his main argument in 1.18-3.20 that both Jews and Gentiles are in the same boat.
Irrespective of where one ends up landing on the issue of homosexuality in the Church, it seems very clear that the whole point of what Paul is doing is not to target anyone, but to unite humanity in a common situation. The message either way should be that we are all sinners, every one one of us, and are in need of divine intervention to set us aright.
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. It’s not the story Gentiles would tell of themselves. But it seems that Paul is doing something really smart here. By repeating the common 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 is worthy of 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’ve previously seen him use this same strategy in Ephesians.)
Storytelling: Virtue and Vice
Tightly connected to Paul’s Jewish story about Gentiles is a philosophical story about vice and virtue. Drawn primarily from Stoicism, but becoming a broader shared story in the Roman period (what we might today call pop psychology), this says that when the mind (nous) is working properly, we can properly discern how to respond to all of the ups and downs and curveballs of embodied life. But if it’s not working properly, we confuse needs and wants and spiral down an unending vortex of excess, leading to all sorts of bad behaviour. 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? Obviously no philosophy, ancient or modern, is going to mesh perfectly with scientific knowledge, but there do at least 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, buying clothing we don’t need, 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. We’ve seen this come up time and time again over the past few days. 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 be 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. It goes like this: People misunderstood creation and so they worshiped created things as gods. Therefore, God ‘gave them over’ to their disordered minds and the passions that flow from them, including homoeroticism, which is the ‘exchange’ of ‘natural’ sexuality for one that is ‘unnatural’.
Is this story true? This story makes several claims that need to be unpacked. First, it implies that homosexuality is not found in the order of creation. But when we look at the world, what is surprising is not an absence of homosexual activity, but its abundance, documented in well over a hundred species and counting. Among animals homosexuality plays 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 an example of the ‘dishonorable passions’ to which ‘God gave them over’. Reminding ourselves that in the story Paul is telling there is no such thing as an ‘honorable’ passion, this is not a reference to what we would today call sexual orientation. Homosexuality here is seen as a consequence of passion full stop, not disordered passion. There is therefore an expectation of general bi- or pansexuality at play here, which is why Paul uses the language of ‘exchange’ throughout these verse. Is this what we find in the world? While it’s becoming increasingly clear that our understandings of gender and sexuality are socially constructed and therefore difficult to translate across cultures, it seems fair to conclude 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 middle, ‘bisexual’ area itself is a continuum, from those who will engage in homoerotic activities only when opposite-sex partners are not available, to those who have no preference between genders. This means that the argument Paul is making (again, this is not his own argument but one he has borrowed from his culture) is questionable, since it is based on a faulty assumption about human sexuality writ large. Most people who engage in homoeroticism are not really ‘exchanging’ anything, because you cannot exchange what you don’t have. There is a matter of justice in all this: 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 (those who fall on the queer end of the spectrum of sexuality) instead of uniting humanity, which is is intent.
The third claim is connected to this, which is that homosexuality arises from heterosexual 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 the story Paul is telling is always wrong — I can think of a couple people I know who did come to same-sex encounters slowly over time, out of a kind of ‘novelty kink’. But these men are pretty rare and generally still identify as straight.) At any rate, for most gay and lesbian people, their sexuality arises well before they engage in any sexual activity, so the connection of homoeroticism with excess 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 wereable 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 true.
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 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 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. We shouldn’t feel too bothered about this because this example comes not from the Gospel but from the pop philosophy of his day. While we can, and maybe even should, respect those aspects of ancient philosophy that are beneficial, we aren’t beholden to those aspects that are not.
And again, bringing in what we learned from the ‘Explore’ step, while Paul may say that homoeroticism is ‘contrary to nature’, he later says the same thing about the ‘grafting’ of the Gentiles onto the ‘tree’ of God’s Jewish salvation plan, which he believes (and we as Christians agree) was accomplished in and through Jesus of Nazareth. And this is ultimately his point: that what doesn’t seem to naturally fit into what we’ve thought God was about, can and does in fact fit.
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 here 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 abound 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. As it happens, this also makes the passage more 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 multiple 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 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.