by James Driedger
Despite the fact that Paul only addressed same-sex sex indirectly in Romans 1, his words should continue to play a magisterial role in shaping our Christian sexual ethic, as they assume his moral stance, resonate with scripture’s consistent (even if minimal) evaluation of same-sex practices, and provide the only explicitly theological setting in which same-sex sex is reflected upon in scripture.
But before we go to Romans, we must say something about Paul. Paul saw himself in the story of God found in scripture. That God had made everything good was its beginning. That the first man and woman had sent shock-waves of brokenness throughout creation was its downturn. And that God was bringing about salvation, which Paul had come to believe was being realized in the good news of Jesus Christ, was its eucatastrophe.¹
As an apostle of this good news, Paul fought for its implications in the newly formed communities of Christ-followers. And this is true of his letter to the Romans. Paul’s words regarding same-sex sex in Romans 1 cannot be separated from the situation that called forth his gospelizing.
What the situation was can be answered with some certainty: (1) Paul hoped to mobilize the support of this church, so that he would have a base from which to preach the gospel in Spain; and related to this (2), Paul sought to unite this largely Gentile church with Jewish believers.
With a boldness that we’ve come to expect, and on the heels of his assertion that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone, Paul declared that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven, against all godlessness and wickedness of people” (1:18). In contrast to the righteousness of God, all humanity is categorized as unrighteous.
But discontent with staying at a birds-eye view, Paul quickly zoomed-in on the Gentile world and in Hellenistic Jewish fashion argued that the whole gambit of Gentile immorality stems from idolatry (cf. Wisdom of Solomon 11–19). The sequence of Paul’s argument is important as it does not allow the Gentiles to claim ignorance. Paul holds them morally culpable, as their ignorance and unrighteousness are the consequence of their idolatry (vv. 19–23) and the outworking of God’s wrath, which is described as giving them over to their own devices (vv. 24–25).
It’s essential at this point that we recognize the story of creation operating at a subterranean level in Paul’s argument. At times it breaks through the surface of the text as he refers to “the creation of the world” (v. 20) or “the Creator” (v. 25); but more often it operates just below the surface, as the words “image,” “human being,” “men” and “women,” and the list of animals (vv. 23, 26–27), all allude to Genesis 1, where God makes both male and female in his own image and gives them authority over the animals. But arguably another story is at work; for if Genesis 1 is in mind, then Genesis 3 certainly is too. Indeed, it is easy to see Adam and Eve as the archetypical example of exchanging the truth about God for a lie. The influence of both creation and the fall on Paul’s thought in Romans 1 cannot be ignored.
Paul did not restrain himself to the realm of ideas; he chose a practice, homosexuality, to illustrate how idolatry translates into unrighteousness (vv. 26–27). Paul did not choose same-sex sex because it was more sinful than any other sin; rather, he seems to have done so because it explicitly mirrors the exchange of the Creator for the creature: to exchange the design of male-female sex in creation for male-male or female-female sex, mirrors the exchange of worshipping the Creator for the creature. Or as Richard Hays explains in sacramental terms, same-sex sex enacts “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 386).
With no intent of being exhaustive, Paul then closes out the chapter by cataloging some 20-plus sins that clarify that he has not singled out homosexuality (vv. 28–32). The greed and gossip that dominates the Gentile world are just as symptomatic of idolatry as same-sex sex.
Listening and Responding
Despite the prominence that interpretations of Romans similar to the one just given have enjoyed in church history, some interpreters in the past half-century have sought to revise Paul’s target so that he cannot be said to have condemned loving monogamous same-sex relationships.
It is argued that Paul only condemned abusive same-sex relationships (i.e., pederasty); that he only condemned homosexuality because of his (now outdated) patriarchalism (i.e., the penetrated male was “feminized”); that he only saw same-sex sex as sin when it was symptomatic of excessive lust (cf. gluttony); or that he only saw same-sex sex as contrary to nature because he assumed everyone was straight (i.e., gay or lesbian sex would be going against one’s heterosexual nature).
The strength of all these arguments is that they are all historically attested to. The problem, however, that I wish to raise with them is that they tend to flatten out: (1) the diversity of same-sex relationships that existed in the ancient world, the various reasons for why it was criticized, and the different explanations given for its existence; and then (2) pigeon-hole Paul into having one subset of same-sex behaviour in mind, one such reason for criticizing it, and unaware of (what in his time amounted to) scientific explanations as to why some people were born “gay.”
In regards to the first point, literary and archeological evidence reveals a more diverse picture: same-sex relationships existed in which there was little to no age difference, and we have examples of life-long same-sex lovers and marriages; same-sex sex was critiqued as “unnatural” for many reasons (e.g., inability to procreate, animal heterosexuality); and the ancients were also making arguments from mythology, astrology, even biology as to the etiology of homosexuality.
As it pertains to the second point, Paul’s language resists narrow classification. If he had meant to address pederasty why didn’t he use the Greek word for “pederast”? Why would he critique the passive (and victimized) partner if he only condemned abusive same-sex sex? And why would he include the active masculine partner if he was only condemning the feminized male?
Moreover, Paul’s use of the phrase “contrary to nature” (1:26 ESV) is shaped primarily by the Jewish scriptures. The way Paul uses this phrase, for example, in no way resembles pagan patriarchal critiques of same-sex sex (i.e., he uses it to refer to lesbian sex). For Paul, as I argued above, the story of creation and the fall is shaping his moral logic and language. In light of this, I do not know how “contrary to nature” in Romans 1 could mean anything but contrary to the Creator’s design for sexuality vis-à-vis the creation account.
Paul’s “Sting Operation”
To conclude here and argue that Paul prohibited all expressions of same-sex sex wouldn’t be wrong; but it would be disingenuous to Paul. Remember, Paul wrote this letter to unify Gentile Christians with Jewish believers. But how does Paul intend to accomplish this by castigating the Gentiles for 15 verses? Won’t this divide the church?
I think this is exactly what Paul envisioned. But as a skillful rhetorician, Paul wrote Romans 1 to set up, as Hays calls it, his “sting operation” (The Moral Vision, p. 389). For as the Jews reminded of Gentile immorality would be filled with self-righteousness and proceed to judge them, the sting strikes: “you who pass judgment…are condemning yourself, because you…do the same things” (2:1).
Paul, in other words, has recapitulated the story of Nathan and David in 2 Samuel 12, by setting up his Jewish recipients (or interlocutor) to pass judgment on the Gentiles, only to turn the tables on them and declare: “you are condemning yourself.” How often haven’t the Jews themselves been idolatrous and turned to immorality?
This then crescendos to Paul’s assertion that: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:9b). And having levelled the playing field, Paul is poised to speak about the righteousness of God revealed in Christ Jesus (3:21–26).
In closing, I would suggest three ways in which Romans 1 should shape our ministry to the same-sex attracted.
Consistent with the grain of scripture, Romans 1 considers same-sex sex as contrary to the Creator’s design in creation. Theological faithfulness requires us to say the same thing.
It is as important to know how to use scripture as it is to know what it teaches. To use Romans 1 to pass self-righteous judgment on those who engage in same-sex sex is to fall into Paul’s trap and condemn yourself. Pastoral graciousness requires us to speak the truth in love.
Finally, Romans 1–3 is the great equalizer. We all suffer from the human condition called idolatry, and on our own stand unrighteous. This requires of us to say that we are all (sexual) sinners in need of the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
James Driedger (MDiv, PTS) is an associate pastor at Blumenort Community Church. He lives in Steinbach with his wife, two sons, and daughter.
¹ The pursuit of the right terminology in this discussion is endless; I have chosen to primarily use the phrase “same-sex sex” in reference to all same-sex sexual intercourse, in contrast to “same-sex behavior” (too broad) or “gay sex” (too narrow).
Gagnon, Robert A. J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2001.
Gathercole, Simon J. “Sin in God’s Economy: Agencies in Romans 1 and 7.” In Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment. Edited by John M. G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole. New York: T & T Clark, 2008.
Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. New York: Harper One, 1996.
Hubbard, Thomas K. Editor. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, 2003.
Sprinkle, Preston. General Editor. Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible and the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.
Wright, N. T. and Michael F. Bird. The New Treatment In Its World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2019.