Yes, It’s Time for Romans 1 (Part 1)

The_Colosseum_in_Rome_640Many have called Romans 1 a “clobber passage” (because of how it’s been weaponized at times against the LGBTQ community). So is it? For those unfamiliar with these conversations, the two verses in Romans 1:26-27 form the longest passage in the bible that speaks directly to same-sex sexual behavior, so it’s super important in this conversation.

Our Study Team set aside an entire Saturday morning to discuss it (after we’d done a bunch of reading and thinking about it), so I thought it would be helpful to share my reflections from that study.

There’s some real thinking required here, and we’re going to look at it over several blog posts, so get ready to do some work. And if you’re not willing to really understand this text, I might suggest you remove it from any conversations about LGBTQ people in the church because you may well be misusing it and, one way or the other, turning it into a weapon to hurt people.

Feeling Judgmental

One of the pieces the Study Team read was from Richard Hays’ masterpiece The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In his chapter on homosexuality, he reminds us that all of the talk of sin in Romans 1 (including the bits about gay sex) are “a homiletical sting operation.” They are set up to deal with the kind of evil that destroys more people than any sexual sin: judgmentalism. Here is Hays on Romans 1:18-32:

The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then the sting strikes in Romans 2:1: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteousness is “without excuse” (2:1) before God just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are “without excuse”(1:20).

Hays helps us see that however we read Romans 1:26-27 on homosexuality, being judgmental is inexcusable in the sight of God. That shouldn’t stop us from thinking and talking about what is sin and what’s not sin, but it should wipe that ‘those people…‘ thought right from our minds, to be replaced with ‘us people...’

The Nature of Nature

A lot of the arguments on Romans 1 hinge on the Greek word physis. It’s commonly translated ‘nature’ in English. The Greek word comes up 14 times in various forms in the New Testament, and 3 of those are here in our passage:

…their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.  (Romans 1:26-27)

Needless to say, the word ‘nature’ is crucial in these verses, so how we understand it drastically affects how we read this text. So what is the nature of ‘nature’?

The premier Greek lexicon (Baurer/Danker) gives 4 definitions of physis (nature). You can read them yourself here if you’re a true nerd. Their English counterparts are similar in many ways, and as with all definitions, there’s some elasticity and overlap. Here’s a basic summary of those 4 definitions of the Greek word for nature:

  1. Endowment (the Creation interpretation) – “Cotton is a natural material; polyester is not.”
  2. Predisposition (the personal interpretation) –  “Optimism comes naturally to my wife.”
  3. Convention (the cultural interpretation) – “It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!”
  4. Species (not relevant for this discussion – see James 3:7 – physis is translated ‘kinds’)

The first three definitions have each been part of the LGBTQ conversation around Romans 1. I want to briefly dispel of the second definition and then dive in deep to the first and third since they have more impact.

When progressives first started looking at Romans 1, they would on occasionally argue that what Paul was writing about here was that it was unnatural if a straight person had gay sex or if a gay person had straight sex because it was contrary to their personal disposition (definition 2). My sense is that most current scholars on both sides of the debate don’t think this is a very plausible interpretation, so we’re not going to focus on that argument here.

Definition 1: Nature as Creation                          Definition 3: Nature as Convention

Nature as Creation (Definition 1)

Romans 1:25 mentions creation twice – “they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Therefore it’s natural (pun intended) when it comes to the very next verse to read “nature” through the Creation interpretation (definition 1). Context matters, and the fact that Creation is mentioned in verse 25 gives weight to verse 26 being read in the same light.

The Creation interpretation is the standard approach of the traditionalists to Romans 1. As Robert Gagnon writes in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, “Nature here for Paul, as a Jew, is that which something truly is by virtue of its creation… For Paul homoeroticism constitutes an extreme expression of human revolt against the divinely ordained natural order and not just a subversion of customary gender roles.” Nature is tied to creation and to ‘divinely ordained natural order.’

The argument goes this way: despite the fact that people were designed by God at Creation to have sexual relations with the opposite sex, people instead had sex with the same sex, which is contrary to how God ordered the world. Because this is disordered (not part of God’s original design) it’s sinful.

The nature of ‘nature’ is crucial to the traditional reading of the text. It’s also crucial to the progressive reading of the text.

Nature as Convention (Definition 3)

Paul uses the word physis a few other times in similar ways to how he uses it here in Romans 1. For example,

Does not the very nature of things (physis) teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. 1 Corinthians 11:14-16

This passage is particularly interesting because Paul is writing about male-female relationships as in Romans 1, and he’s also making a very broad statement for how it plays out in all churches of that time. And yet, the plain reading of this text suggests that Paul’s comments on hair length are primarily about a cultural convention, not about God’s original moral design.

Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, a leader of an ex-gay ministry in Canada, was led to question her conservative convictions because of verses like these. She writes,

Again from Romans 1:26–27 is the phrase para physis, which is normally translated as “unnatural.” Some suggest that this cannot mean “immoral” because Paul uses this word to describe God’s act of including gentiles in Romans 11:24. Paul also uses the same wording in 1 Corinthians 11:14–15 to state that long hair on men is against nature. This raises the question of whether it is inherently immoral (that is, for all times and all places) or a statement for that culture.

Many progressives, using this ‘cultural convention’ interpretation, read Romans 1 in conjunction with the kind of homosexuality they see in the Greco-Roman world (see my blog on those ancient documents here) and make an argument that goes like this: The cultural forms of homosexuality that Paul was writing about were immoral, however they are not the covenantal, monogamous, mutual, adult relationships that gay Christians are seeking to honor God with today.

Again, as with the traditional approach, the nature of ‘nature’ has a big impact on how we read Romans 1.

So What Does This Mean?

For me, looking honestly and deeply at the key words in this discussion, like physis, is unnerving. I’d prefer to have everything neat and tidy.

And yet, God has instead left us to do the hard work understanding scripture and, I believe, has invited us to dialogue well with each other along the way. It’s almost as if he wants us to love one another even when we disagree!

With that in mind, I’ll close with thoughts on Romans 1 from two scholars I respect immensely, who see the passage very differently, and yet who see the conversation very similarly:

Conservative scholar Preston Sprinkle has blogged that “there is room for dialogue and fellowship with those who hold different views on this topic” because:
I’ve seen that the issue is a hundred times more complicated than I thought. No longer do I believe Christians can simply quote a verse from Leviticus (or wherever) and think that the debate is settled. There are a lot of questions surrounding the biblical material that refers to homosexual sex. 
Progressive scholar James Brownson writes something very similar:
Both sides of the debate can agree that Paul is correct in what he says here [in Romans 1]. In other words, both sides accept the authority of the text in what it is directly teaching. This is an important point that should not be passed over lightly. Neither side of the debate denies the authority and truthfulness of Scripture. The point of difference centers on the underlying moral logic that shapes the text, and thus its applicability to contemporary life.
Next week we’ll spend time looking at the best traditional arguments from Romans 1, and the following week we’ll look at the best progressive arguments from Romans 1.

Author: Bill White

I am a pastor at City Church of Long Beach, a friend to many LGBTQ people, and a conversation partner for people all over the spectrum of beliefs about how being LGBTQ and Christian fit together.

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