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.
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:
Paul thought homosexuality was evil
Paul had in mind practices connected with idol worship
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.
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
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Have a great day! ~Tim