Homosexuality—Sin, or a Cultural Bad Habit?
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due (Romans 1:26-27).
Against the backdrop of a thoroughly pagan Roman society, Paul presented one of the most outstanding summations ever written of God’s plan for the salvation of man—the epistle to the Romans. In order to set the stage for the Gospel (Romans 1:16-17), Paul used the major portion of the first three chapters to convince his readers that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As evidence of the ubiquitous nature of sin, Paul listed specific sins of the pagan Gentile world (Romans 1:18-32), and of the hypocritical Jewish world (Romans 2:1-29).
One of the specific sins of the Gentile world listed by Paul was the abandonment of proper sexual relationships between men and women. The women began to lust for other women, and the men “burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful” (Romans 1:27). The contrast in verse 26 is between the “natural” and the “unnatural.” These heathens “left aside and thus discarded” the natural form of intercourse between a man and his wife (Lenski, 1951, p. 113). The fact that this exchange involved sexual intercourse is well established (see Bauer, 1979, p. 886; Cranfield, 1975, p. 125).
Does Paul’s reference to homosexuality in this chapter serve as a condemnation of the practice in general, or is Paul discussing a practice that was confined to the culture of the first century and that cannot be cited to condemn the type of so-called “loving homosexual relationships” that exist today? Many have chosen to relegate Paul’s condemnation to cultural status, and argue that it does not condemn all homosexual behavior. For example, Rowland Croucher wrote:
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 from loving, responsible lesbian and gay relationships seen today (2002).
The argument set forth by Croucher and others basically hinges on the phrase “against nature.” What does the Bible mean when it says that the practices of this pagan society were “against nature?” And, is everything that is done “against nature” sinful? Does the Bible condemn all activities that “go against nature”? First Corinthians 12:9-10,29-30 describes miracles that go against nature. Also, Paul described God as acting contrary to nature by grafting the wild olive branch (Gentiles) into the good olive tree (see Davies, 1995, 324). Obviously, the Bible declares some things to be good, even though they go against nature.
What type of “nature” is being discussed? Is Paul discussing the Gentiles’ nature, the nature of humanity in general, the natural order of things, God’s nature, or some other nature? Davies claims that Paul’s idea of nature entails solely cultural situations (1995, p. 323). Boswell claims that nature always involves possession (1980, p. 108), which means if a thing is against someone’s nature, it is a thing he or she would not normally do. Thus, the Jews should not act against their nature, the Gentiles should not act against their nature, and God will not act against His nature—all three natures being different. Boswell and Davies definitely confine the condemnation of verses 26 and 27 to first-century culture.
DeYoung, however, presents the accurate assessment of the text. He refers back to the creation model, citing that homosexual practices go against the natural pattern set by God when He created man and woman (1988, pp. 429-441). Thus, Cranfield says that such practices are “contrary to the intention of the Creator” (1975, p. 123). Homosexuality, therefore, goes against the natural order of marriage, not of ethnicity or the culture of Jews or Gentiles, but the marriage bed that should be undefiled among all nationalities and cultures.
Is Romans 1:26-27 a cultural or a universal condemnation? One should consider the fact that Romans 1:18-3:20 pronounces all humans in every culture, race, and organization under sin. No person will be justified by the law (3:20). No person will receive forgiveness if he does not obey God from the heart (2:29). No person will attain salvation if he despises the riches of God’s goodness (2:4). No person will see the kingdom of God if he is a murderer (2:29). Neither will a person inherit salvation if he or she practices homosexuality, whether he or she is a Gentile in Rome or a banker in New York City (1:26-27).
Verses 29-32 of Romans chapter one are simply a continuation of the sin list introduced in verse 24. No scholar would remotely contend that “unloving,” “unforgiving,” and “unmerciful” were cultural traits that do not transcend the passage of earthly time and culture. Yet some would try to separate homosexuality from this list, thus separating it from Paul’s list of timeless truths; transforming it into a culturally bad habit. Such does violence to the text of Romans.
Another device used by pro-homosexual scholars to defend their position is a plea of ignorance. They do not submit a plea of their own ignorance, of course, but a plea of Paul’s ignorance. It is affirmed that Paul was not aware of the true love that can exist between homosexual couples. They say Paul did not deal with gay people; rather, he dealt with homosexual acts (Boswell, 1980, p. 109). Therefore, the type of homosexual “love” that exists today is supposedly much higher and nobler than anything Paul had seen among the Romans and Greeks during his lifetime.
Ukleja strongly opposes the above claim. He declares that Paul was one of the most educated men of his day. He was raised in Tarsus, the third most intellectual city in the world, ranking only behind Athens and Alexandria. In Athens they spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear some new thing. Tarsus was much the same. Paul knew the Stoic poets, and he studied Greek literature and culture. One would be naïve to think that Paul was not cognizant of the fact that certain Greeks regarded homosexuality as the highest form of love (1983, p. 354).
Every past, present, or future society wants to think that it has arrived at the pinnacle of some new form of thought or practice. Societies want to claim inventive prerogative in industry, civility, scholarship, and even sexuality. Arrogance is epitomized in the idea that Paul and his contemporaries knew nothing of the “exalted homosexual love” of the present day. Let wisdom’s voice be heard ringing loudly throughout the halls of time: “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The twenty-first century may well be the most inventive, “progressive” time period the world has ever seen, but it must be understood that this generation did not invent a form of exalted homosexual love that is pure and right in the sight of God.
Another argument draws itself into battle array against the idea that Romans 1:26-27 describes all homosexual behavior. This argument, commonly known as the “abuse argument,” states that God does not condemn all homosexual activity, only the abuse of such activity. The “supporting evidence” is this: God never condemns eating, but he does condemn gluttony, which is the abuse of eating. Further, God never condemns heterosexual intercourse, but he does declare that the abuse of such intercourse in the form of fornication and adultery is sinful. Therefore, some have concluded that Paul did not condemn all homosexual activity in Romans 1, but only inappropriate, abusive homosexual activity.
This argument is very tenuous indeed. If fornication and adultery are abuses of the sexual relationship, in what way do they abuse it? They are abuses to the marriage relationship that was established with the first man and the first woman. Genesis 2:24 records: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” God—in all of Holy Writ—never declared that the act of sex outside of His marriage parameters is acceptable. Sex is permitted only within holy matrimony. The only type of holy matrimony instituted by God is between a man and a woman. This is confirmed by every biblical text that deals specifically with the subject. For example, 1 Corinthians 7:2 states: “Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (emp. added). Even Jesus, in Matthew 5:32 and 19:1-9, identified marriage between a male and a female as the only place in which sexual intercourse is sanctioned. If one must plead that the homosexual activity described in Romans is an abuse of something, let him plead that it is the heinous abuse of the God-instituted marriage relationship.
Homosexuality has been against the will of God since the beginning of Creation when He made humans male and female. Romans 1:26-27 deals specifically with homosexuality, and condemns it as a practice that is wrong in every culture, during every time period. There never will be a day when the text of Romans 1:26-27 can accurately be twisted to permit any type of same-sex intercourse. Nor will there be a day when a practicing homosexual who refuses to repent will be saved from his or her sins. God wants all men and women everywhere to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), but He demands that they repent of and turn away from their sins, “because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30-31).
Bauer, Walter (1979), “use,” A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Trans., rev., and ed. William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), second edition.
Boswell, John (1980), Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Cranfield, C. E. B. (1975), A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: Clark).
Croucher, Rowland (2002), “Homosexuality: A Liberal Approach,” [On-line], URL: http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/aasi/aasi0669.htm.
Davies, Margaret (1995), “New Testament Ethics and Ours: Homosexuality and Sexuality in Romans 1:26-27,” Biblical Interpretation, 3: 315-31.
Deyoung, James B. (1988), “The Meaning of ‘Nature’ in Romans and Its Implications for Biblical Proscriptions of Homosexual Behavior,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 31: 429-41.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1951), The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Columbus, OH: Wartburg).
Ukleja, P. Michael (1983), “The Bible and Homosexuality: Part 2, Homosexuality in the New Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 140: 350-58.