Questioning Paul and Homosexuality in Romans

Those who condemn gays often see Paul’s letter to the Romans as the definitive statement on God’s rejection of homosexuality. Romans 1 reads:

God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even 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. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Paul writing his epistles

Three Alternate Understandings of Romans 1

This passage seems to them a very clear expression of God’s opposition to homosexuality, and they seem unable to accept any other understanding. But there are other reasonable ways to read this passage:

    1. Paul thought homosexuality was evil
    2. Paul had in mind practices connected with idol worship
    3. Paul summarized typical Jewish thinking about Gentiles

Let’s look at them in reverse order.

Paul Describes the Jewish Attitude Toward Gentiles

Some time ago, I encountered a perspective on Paul’s rant I never heard before. It suggests that the rant does not represent Paul’s view. Instead, Paul voices the common disparaging view of Jews toward Gentiles—in order to contradict it.

This idea was so intriguing that I read the first chapters of Romans repeatedly to see if this view made sense. A major insight is found in the first verse of Romans 2:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Who is the ‘You’ addressed in this verse? ‘Therefore’ indicates that it references what was said previously. You, therefore’ is qualified by You who pass judgment’—apparently judgment on the ‘They’ mentioned frequently in chapter 1. So it seems very reasonable that the ‘You’ are Jews holding disparaging views toward Gentiles whom the Jews regarded as degraded.

While the first verse of chapter 2 begins the conclusion to Paul’s rant about Gentiles, his introduction to the rant also provides guidance to understanding his intention. He says:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Paul begins with a strong statement that the good news (gospel) is the power of God that brings salvation to both Jews and Gentiles, and he emphasizes faith as the basis for both.

The Jewish Argument Against Gentiles

From there, Paul speaks in the voice of those embracing the Jewish castigation of Gentiles, probably Jewish believers in the Roman church. We know how much Paul battled against Jewish believers who bullied Gentile believers.

The Jewish argument goes:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even 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. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

In chapter 2, Paul returns to his own voice to say that Jews are no different, ‘You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else.’

What judgment is he talking about? It is the judgment from the common Jewish opinion he just presented. Then Paul continues for several chapters describing his perspective, which is opposite the Jewish one.

This seems to me a valid understanding of Paul’s comment on homosexuality, but there are two more alternative views. We will continue with them next time.

How Does This Relate to Gays?

According to this understanding of Romans chapter 1, the negative attitude toward gays does not represent Paul’s views but those of the Jews that Paul attempted to correct. You can read more about this perspective by Christian scholar Don Burrows—I recommend it.

In the early church, Jewish believers bullied Gentile believers. Today, the church is overwhelmingly Gentile; whom do we bully? I suggest that those we bully most are Gay believers.

UPDATE!

James Bradford Pate contributes further information on this passage by pointing out that Paul seems to summarize the apocryphal and non-canonical book, Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14. Wisdom exemplifies the Jewish attitude toward Gentiles which Paul contradicts.

You can read a discussion of these chapters at Theo Geek. Thanks for the contribution James!

Image credit: Valentin de Boulogne, Saint Paul writing his epistles via Wikimedia Commons

 

I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please sign up in the column to the right so you don’t miss future posts.
Have a great day! ~Tim
This entry was posted in Bible, gays, judgment, Paul and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Questioning Paul and Homosexuality in Romans

  1. cafedavid says:

    I have been wrestling with Romans for a long time and I have never heard this perspective. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. michaeleeast says:

    This is a very confusing passage.
    I don’t understand what Paul means when he says
    God’s nature was made plain to the godless and they rejected it.
    This seems a very unlikely reason for homosexuality.
    I ignore it out of confusion.

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  3. Chas says:

    Two things come out of your study for me, Tim. The first is that Paul’s epistles are written in dense and opaque words. As an extreme example, I once heard someone read from them using the King James Bible and they could hardly read it because of its complexity. Would God’s own words be so complex, or would they be plain and easy to understand?

    The second point is that, ever since I believed in Jesus, It has always seemed to me that what Paul wrote reflected his own prejudices and he tends to use the first person singular ‘I’ quite a lot, which seems to bear this out.

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  4. Theodore A. Jones says:

    Maybe you missed it or your are blind perhaps, but Paul’s “rant” begins at Rom. 1:18 not 1:25.

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    • Theodore, thanks for pointing it out; the rant does begin at verse 18. I was not blind. Rather, the missing portion didn’t change the argument either way, and I didn’t want to exceed my target post length.

      In addition, the biblical text was already too long for a blog, and I did not want to make it longer. People tend to get bored when quotes are lengthy.

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      • Theodore A. Jones says:

        “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” 2 Tim. 2:16 It is only a fool who dares rant that it is untrustworthy.

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        • Chas says:

          Then I dare be called a fool, because many of Paul’s writings are not trustworthy.

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        • Theodore, I am very familiar with the passage you quote from 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, and I understand your concern.

          I think there is a lot from the Old Testament that is useful, but the writer stating these details does not make them true. Inerrancy of the Bible is not a biblical concept.

          In any case, the writer is likely referring to the Old Testament because the New Testament was not yet formed. And if he believes the Old Testament is given by inspiration of God it doesn’t apply to his own statement in this passage, so his comment is not considered inspired even by him–it was, at most, guidance to a particular individual.

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        • Chas says:

          Matthew 5:22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

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  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Paul does draw on ideas that are also in Wisdom of Solomon. That could be relevant here.

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  6. Chas says:

    The other thing in Paul’s epistles is that he is heavy on condemnation and judgment, e.g: ‘You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.’ By his own words, he is judged!

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  9. ludybina says:

    2 Tim 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

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    • Hi Ludybina,

      Thanks for your proof-text response; it helps me better understand your perspective. This is a popular passage used by some believers to indicate their understanding that the Bible is essentially written by God; some call this inerrancy.

      However, one problem is that it was written before the New Testament even existed, so the New Testament is not included in the writer’s comment. He was referring only to the Old Testament, and he certainly was not claiming inerrancy for this very comment in his own letter. So 2 Tim 3:16 doesn’t claim inerrancy for itself.

      Furthermore, this was a personal comment to the recipient of this letter, and we cannot determine what they understood it to mean in their private relationship. Remember, this letter wasn’t even written for us; we have it because other believers of that time found it useful and shared it, so that it became popular to read it in the churches.

      My conclusion is that this passage is not useful in claiming that the Bible is written by God and is inerrant, but I am open to hear your additional thoughts.

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