On Tuesday, I sat down for coffee with J., who at had just come out to his family and friends. He cried a couple of times as he shared his story, including when he told of his father hugging him afterwards – a rare occurrence.
J. was raised in a church nearby, but he’s stopped attending because God feels distant and he doesn’t want to put on his ‘happy church face’ and show up. But he couldn’t have been clearer about wanting to follow Jesus. “For the first time I’m actually open to considering having a partner – but I won’t do it if it’s not right. And I don’t want to just convince myself the bible says something if it doesn’t.” Then he leaned in, “So what do you think God wants for me?”
Well, that’s a good question.
In my own attempts to answer it, I thought I’d look at the best arguments on Romans 1 from the traditional perspective (in this blog) and from the progressive perspective (in next week’s blog). As we think on the scriptures and wrestle with the issues, I will try to remember that we’re actually talking about real people, like my new friend J.
Here are what I’ve found to be the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 against same-sex sexual behavior. As a good friend of mine just reminded me today, I would be remiss not to mention at the outset that the whole point of the traditional arguments are that God loves gay people and wants their best. With that in mind, let’s dive in.
1. Same-Sex Behavior is Contrary to God’s Creational Order
In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (which basically covered the nature of the word ‘nature’) I outlined this argument, so I won’t say much more about it here. In the simplest of terms it goes like this: God created male and female sex parts to work together, so doing sex otherwise is immoral. To summarize the argument in a more scholarly way, Richard Hays writes that:
[since] the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity… when human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.
2. Paul Uses Additional Terms to Emphasize Creational Intent
In addition to the immediate context of Creation just mentioned, Paul seems to be referring specifically to the Genesis 1 account in Romans 1:26-27 by the use of two key terms for ‘women’ and ‘men.’ Here’s the break down of those terms from one of my seminary professors:
Paul does not use the normal terms for women (gyne) and men (aner) but two terms (thelys and arsen) that may well allude to God’s created order, as they are used in the Septuagint of the creation account, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27 LXX). (Grant Osborn, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series)
Using those terms is a way for Paul to ‘double down’ on his emphasis that the only godly way to have sex is the way God designed it in the Garden of Eden, namely, between a man and a woman. In a sort of repetition of point #1, this shows Paul’s commitment to the original design as the only moral way to behave sexually.
3. Same-Sex Behavior is the Third of Three Sinful “Exchanges”
Paul’s overarching argument in Romans 1 is that the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) are disconnected from God, caught in unhealthy/sinful ways of living, and in need of a Savior. Paul builds his argument with a series of three ‘exchanges’:
- [They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idols (1:23)
- They exchanged the truth about God for a lie (1:25)
- Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (1:26)
Paul uses the same greek work (‘exchange’) to emphasize how, because of each of these scenarios, the Gentiles have distanced themselves from God and are suffering for it and in need of rescue. The parallel items at the back end of each of the ‘exchanges’ look like this:
idols : lies : same-sex acts
Essentially, this argument says, since idols and lies are always immoral, the parallel activity of same-sex behavior is immoral.
As one renowned scholar put it, “Paul’s attitude to homosexual practice is unambiguous. The third appearance of the word “changed’ (cf. vv 23 and 25) seems to imply that the action described (“changing the natural use to that which is contrary to nature”) is of a piece with and direct result of the basic corruption of the glory and truth of God in idolatry.” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary Romans 1-8)
4. The Text Condemns All Same-Sex Behavior
This argument says that, for the sake of drawing all people to Christ, Romans 1 highlights the sinfulness of all same-sex behavior, as opposed to just pederasty or temple prostitution. In an interesting twist, Romans 1 critiques female-female sex, which was far less common than male-male sex in the ancient Greco-Roman world, suggesting that Paul was trying to cover all his bases.
In addition to that, Paul uses key words that clarify the range of whom God holds responsible in cases of same-sex behavior. In an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, James DeYoung writes that “The terms ‘toward one another,’ ‘men with men,’ ‘in themselves’ and ‘their error’ all argue for adult reciprocal mutuality and mutual culpability, which would not characterize pederasty. As the error is mutual, so is the recompense.”
Therefore, since Paul includes both male and female same-sex activity while implicating both parties of such activity, he clearly defines all same-sex activity (and not merely exploitative same-sex activity) under the category of “shameful lusts” (1:26).
5. Church History
For two thousand years (that’s a long time) the church has consistently held to these interpretations (and some other ones which I don’t find as convincing) of Romans 1. That much history is not something to trifle with. There should be strong reasoning to consider even having conversation about an area of theology that has enjoyed such unanimous support for so long and so widely, much less to consider changing that theology.
In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams summarize their findings from looking throughout scripture and church history at these issues:
In the context of the current confusion, we intend to demonstrate that Scripture and the historic, orthodox church consistently have warned that homosexual practice is sin. We will show that the suggestion that homosexual practice is acceptable before God is contrary to Scripture and to what all the church everywhere has always taught.
Next week, I’ll look at the five best arguments for a progressive interpretation of Romans 1.
Here is Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (What is the Nature of the Word ‘Nature’)
Here is Part 3 of this series on Romans 1 (Best Progressive Arguments)