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Integrity & Exegesis: Paul, Romans 1 & Homosexuality

By Terry Griffith.

No exegete comes without some kind of lens through which to look at the text. However, integrity requires that we deal as faithfully as we can with the text. Our goal is truthfulness. Tom Wright says some interesting things on this when dealing with the interpretation of Romans 9-11: ‘If it turns out that Paul says things I don’t want to hear, I shall live with it. If it turns out that I say things which Paul doesn’t want to hear, perhaps he will one day put me straight. If it turns out that Paul says things the twenty-first century doesn’t want to hear, it’s better that we get that out in the open rather than sneakily falsifying the historical evidence to fit our predilections.’[1] This is equally relevant to the interpretation of Romans 1.

William Loader used a five year full-time professorial fellowship (2005-10) to research every Jewish text from the hellenistic era touching on the topic of sexuality, publishing five monographs. After his examination of Romans 1.18-32, in which he shows that the traditional interpretation of this passage is almost certainly correct, he says this: “My concern in seeking to elucidate as clearly as possible what Paul was saying comes not from a belief in Paul’s abiding authority nor a desire to depict his views as resembling or matching my own. My hermeneutical perspective is to bring to his writing the respect it warrants as one of the earliest documents of the Christian movement, a respect I believe is due, at the very least, to all human beings.”[2]

His conclusions cannot be ignored in any responsible exegesis of Romans 1.18-32. This article summarises what we can know about the cultural and biblical background that informs Paul’s approach to homosexuality.

Homosexuality in the 1st century

The first matter relates to the state and extent of knowledge about homosexuality in Paul’s time. Would he, or anyone else in the Roman Empire, have known of life-long committed homosexual relationships, or that homosexuality might have been regarded as a life-long condition? Just such issues are discussed in Plato’s Symposium from the fourth century BCE. After Plato’s Republic, the Symposium was the most widely known and discussed text of the Academy, and Plato’s influence remained massive throughout the New Testament period.[3] Horace, Ovid and Cicero all went to Athens to complete their education. The Academy had several branches including a famous one at Tarsus, Paul’s city. It is inconceivable that as educated a man as Paul would not have been conversant with what Greco-Romans thought about homosexuality.

The Symposium (189c-193e) contains the first extant reference to lesbianism. Aristophanes explains this phenomenon, and that of male homoeroticism, in terms of primeval beings consisting of two halves with two sets of the same genitalia. Heterosexuals, however, originally had two different sets of genitalia. Zeus bisected them as a punishment, and each half in this world is engaged in a search for their ‘lost’ other half so that they may be reunited. This account clearly presupposes an understanding of sexuality as present from birth, and that the goal is one of life-long union with one’s lost primeval partner. Bernadette Brooten also adduces astrological texts which understand that the heavenly bodies predetermine erotic orientation at birth, and medical texts explaining erotic orientation in terms of the processes of conception.[4]

Furthermore, the Symposium discusses the desirability of lifelong homoerotic unions. Pausanius speaks of those who are sexually interested in boys who start growing beards (symbolic of gaining intelligence): “Those who begin to love them at this point, I think, are prepared to be with them through the whole of life and pass their lives in common, rather than deceiving them by catching them in the thoughtlessness of youth and then contemptuously abandoning them and running off with someone else” (181a). Later, Pausanius speaks of “the lover of a worthy character that abides through life, for he is joined to what is constant” (183e). Brooten also adduces second century CE evidence for woman to woman marriages.[5] It is not credible to assert that Paul could not have had some knowledge of lifelong same-sex orientation and union.

The second matter is the argument that Paul casts his discussion of homosexuality in terms that betray specific cultural understandings of sexuality. There are four aspects of cultural accommodation that are frequently used in revisionist interpretations of Paul on homosexuality.

1)      Male homoeroticism in the Greco-Roman world was generally disapproved of because it required the passive partner to act like a woman in being penetrated. Thus the feminisation of men was regarded as shameful in a culturally specific gendered way.

2)      Another cultural presupposition was that homosexuality was the result of an excess of passion and therefore was always an expression of lust. Paul’s critique is not relevant to faithful, loving, and committed gay relationships.

3)      Coercive homosexual practices such as pederasty, or forced sex between master and slave, where the power relations are unequal, were common and Paul has these in mind.

4)      The major revisionist argument focuses on the link between idolatry and homosexuality. The link between idolatry and all forms of sexual immorality was a commonplace in Jewish thought. This link is even implicit within the Genesis 1 account, in that the schema of creation over six days can be read as a polemic against anything in the created order being regarded as worthy of worship. The Jewish polemic against idolatry uses the Creator/creature dichotomy as its basic rationale. The association of idolatry with sexual immorality was, of course, most fully expressed in the fertility cults but was not necessarily confined to them.  However, it would be absurd to think that the Hebrew mind-set condemned sexual immorality only when it occurred within temple precincts or as a part of religious ritual.

James Brownson has written a book which contains a four chapter analysis of Paul’s teaching on sexuality in Romans 1, under the headings of lust and desire, purity and impurity, honour and shame, and nature. I do not deny that Paul draws on the language of all these categories in his exposition. He is after all thoroughly immersed in Greco-Roman culture. Brownson argues that it is these culturally defined categories that shape Paul’s reasoning and, therefore, he is dealing with promiscuous and abusive sexual relationships. He achieves this, however, by minimizing the influence of Genesis 1 in Paul’s exposition (in a letter replete with Old Testament reference). Furthermore, he deals with these topics in an atomistic way without providing a consecutive exposition to show how the structure of Paul’s argument works.[6]


Genesis in Romans

How then does Paul present his argument in Romans 1.18-32? The specific background of Genesis 1 is manifestly evident.[7] The load bearing structure of Paul’s argument is thus his vigorous creational monotheism. Paul is well able to dress that structure with ideas drawn from Gentile culture that cohere with his essentially Jewish worldview and serve his purpose, but it is a mistake to think that the course of his argument is determined by such concerns: Paul’s ‘understanding of ethics, rooted in Jewish creational monotheism, was that of a genuinely human existence in which the new creation was coming to birth. He affirmed the goodness of the original creation (hence the strong emphasis on classic Jewish sexual ethics, the key point where Paul insisted that gentile converts should renounce gentile ways) […].’[8] Therefore, Paul, speaking about ‘nature’ (phusis) in this context, can only be referring to the order of creation and not specifically human nature or more generally social convention.

Paul draws on the themes of idolatry and sexuality from his understanding of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament in his exposition of how and why the “wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1.18). The revisionist approach to homosexuality in Romans 1 as a subset of the main theme of idolatry, and therefore to be interpreted wholly within that cultic context, fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s theological logic. There is no direct relationship between the incidence of idolatry and the incidence of homosexuality in his reasoning. Both Paul’s treatment of idolatry and that of homosexuality are given as separate and parallel examples of the direct consequence of human failure to worship God as the Creator, namely, to glorify God as God and to give thanks to him (1.21). As a result, people’s thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (1.21). This theme is picked up again in 1.28 where human desire to reject the knowledge of the one true Creator God results in depraved thoughts and conduct as listed in 1.29-31. Loader rightly concludes that “Paul’s primary argument is that what led to wrong sex was wrong theology.”[9] Thus, Paul is not arguing that same-sex activity is wrong when associated with idolatry. Rather, he is demonstrating that the world is idolatrous and rebellious by highlighting same-sex activity.

Interestingly, Paul gives no other specific examples of sexual immorality in Romans and this is a further clue as to Paul’s theological logic at this point. In what follows I am indebted to Simon Gathercole who is Senior Lecturer in New Testament at the University of Cambridge.[10] According to Paul, the suppression of the knowledge of God available through his creative activity (1.19-20) involves not only a rejection, but also an exchange. The leitmotif of ‘exchange’ is found three times in 1.23,25,26. Specifically, the exchange that is highlighted is that of swapping the glory of the immortal God and the truth about God for worthless and false idols (1.22-23,25). This rejection/exchange motif functions as a kind of ‘meta-sin’ in Romans 1, which produces sins of bodily degradation in general (1.24), female and male homosexuality (1.26-27), and in doing ‘what ought not to be done’, literally ‘doing what is not fitting’ (1.28). This is expanded into the list of sins found in 1.29-31. The end result of all such behaviour according to God’s decree is death (1.32).

‘God handed them over …”

Another leitmotif in this passage is the theme of God’s ‘handing people over’ to their sins (1.24,26,28). Paul’s key argument here functions to show that God hands sinners over into situations which precisely highlight the meta-sin of the rejection/exchange motif in relation to idolatry. There is also an irony to be found here in that what humans desire is the exact opposite of what it should be. Taking 1.22-24 first:

1)     In place of the reality of ‘glory’ they get literally ‘a likeness of an image’, a form of double insubstantiality.

2)     In place of the immortal one, they choose mortal objects of worship.

3)     In place of God, the Creator, they serve people, birds, animals and snakes, namely, created things.

As a result of these human decisions, God repays these deeds in a measure-for-measure fashion. In 1.24, they are said first to be handed over to ‘uncleanness’, which is an apt description of the impurity of idolatry, a fact compounded by mention of serpents which themselves are unclean. Second, their abandonment of God’s glory or honour results in the dishonouring of their bodies. Something similar is going on in 1.28 where there is a play on words ouk edokimasan and eis adikimon noūn. Gathercole paraphrases: “God punishes the action of not considering him worthy with a mind that cannot consider whether something is worthy or not.”

How then does the controversial reference to homosexuality in 1.26-27 function in this schema? It is worth pausing to note that this is the only specific reference to lesbianism in the Bible. Here, the ironic correspondence between idolatry and homosexual practice goes deeper than the verbal parallel between exchanging the truth of God for a lie (1.25), and the subsequent exchange of natural for unnatural practice (1.26). Rather, Gathercole argues that ‘[t]he key correspondence lies in the fact that both involve turning away from the ‘other’ to the ‘same.’[11]Put simply, Paul’s analysis of the human predicament is predicated on the fact that the human creature ends up worshipping other similarly creaturely things rather than the Creator who is the Other. This is against the natural order of things and represents, in Luther’s phrase, an incurvatus in se, a ‘turning in on oneself.’  Thus:

1)      Humanity should be oriented toward God, the Other, but instead turns in on itself, as a part of the creation (1.23,25). 

2)      The woman in her sexuality should be oriented toward her ‘other’, the man, but turns in on one who is the ‘same’ (1.26). 

3)      The man in his sexuality should be oriented toward his ‘other’, the woman, but turns in on one who is the ‘same’ (1.27).

Construing Paul’s reasoning in this way makes excellent sense of his linking idolatry with homosexuality. This particular connection also perfectly illustrates the measure-for-measure punishment in that ‘the incurvatus in se of worship (1.25) results in the incurvatus in se of sex – a rejection of the other in preference for the same.’[12] They thus receive ‘in themselves the due penalty for their error’ (1.27) which also links us back via the truth/error duality to Paul’s theological understanding of idolatry.

Paul is therefore not focusing on particular cultic practices which would contextualise his strictures to the priests of the goddess cults, who violated gender roles by castration, cross-dressing and effeminisation, and all those who participate in their works.[13] Neither does he have male temple prostitution specifically in his sights. Paul does not make use of any of the many terms available to him which would clearly indicate that he is specifying cultic homosexual practices. Homosexual conduct would not be acceptable in any form to Paul, because for him and for all Jews, it is the order of creation in Genesis that reveals God’s will.

Some scholars have attempted to ‘problematize’ the reference to lesbianism by noting that the phrase ‘exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones’ (tēn phusikēn chrēsin eis tēn para phusin) also describes heterosexual non-vaginal sexual activity, apparently with the purpose of avoiding pregnancy. Indeed, the earliest quotations we have of Romans 1.26 are applied heterosexually in this fashion. It is not to be doubted that this type of activity is also covered by the use of this phrase.[14] The issue is simply one of what is the topic under discussion and, in this case, teachers in the early church seeking a text to justify a prohibition against non-vaginal marital sex, turned to Romans 1.26. However, it makes no sense whatsoever for Paul to choose this as his first vice following the topic of idolatry, as this would be unique in the standard idolatry and sexual immorality topos with which he is working. There is also the fact that Paul shows no interest in procreation in his discussions on marriage, and, of course, the homoiōs in 1.27 speaks against it.[15]

The American Roman Catholic New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, like William Loader, is in favour of same-sex unions. He complains about attempts to make Scripture say what it plainly does not: “The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.” The million dollar question is, as Johnson goes on to say, “what do we do with what the text says?” His response is to “reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority […].”[16] He seeks to locate that authority in contemporary ‘stories’. I cannot agree with him, but I can respect his integrity.

Extra note:

For testimonia by gay Christians who agree with the traditional understanding of Romans 1, I recommend the New Testament scholar Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (2010); and Ed Shaw’s the plausibility problem: the church and same-sex attraction (2015).

[1] NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (London: SPCK, 2013), 1133.

[2] William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 321.

[3] Wright, Paul, 232.

[4] Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 115-41, 156-59.

[5] Brooten, Love, 332-33.  Note also that Tacitus, Annals 15.37 records how Nero ‘married’ Pythagoras using the full rites of legitimate marriage in AD64, and how three years later Nero also ‘married’ Sporus in a publicly celebrated ‘wedding’.

[6] James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).  For a critical review and engagement with this book see Andrew Goddard at with a summary version available at www.fulcrum-anglican/articles.

[7] See Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 290-92.

[8] Wright, Paul, 1508.

[9] William Loader, Sexuality in the New Testament, (London: SPCK, 2010), 27.

[10] Simon Gathercole, ‘Sin in God’s Economy: Agencies in Romans 1 and 7’ in John M.G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole (eds), Divine and Human Agency in Paul and his Cultural Environment (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 158-72.

[11] Ibid, 163, emphasis his.

[12] Ibid, 164, emphasis his.

[13] See, for example, Jeramy Townsley, ‘Paul, the Goddess Religions, and Queer Sects: Romans 1.23-28’, Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (2011), 707-28.

[14] The commentary of Didymus the Blind on Zechariah explains Romans 1.26 with both senses (4.52.8).

[15] The attempt by Jamie A. Banister, ‘Homoiōs and the Use of Parallelism in Romans 1:26-27’,  Journal of Biblical Literature 128 (2009), 569-90, to show that this adverb is unlikely to determine the meaning of 1.26 by the content of 1.27, does not bear the grammatical weight placed upon it.  Someone as adept in his native Greek as John Chrysostom clearly did not read homoiōs here in this way.  So also Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality, 311.

[16] Cited in Ian Paul, Same-sex Unions: The Key Biblical Texts, Grove Biblical Series 71 (Cambridge: Grove, 2014), 29.

Terry Griffith

Minister of Trinity Baptist Church, Bexleyheath

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You are reading Integrity and Exegesis: Paul, Romans 1 and Homosexuality by Terry Griffith, part of Issue 64 of Ministry Today, published in July 2015.

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