Exchanging the Natural for the Unnatural: Homosexuality in Rome

St Paul writes a letter to the believers residing in Rome, stating his desire to see them personally, because he is eager to "proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome." (Rom. 1:15) He is not ashamed of the gospel, as the good news of Christ is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith" (Rom. 1:16), for in this good news "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith" (Rom. 1:17). The word "righteousness," in its inherently Jewish context, refers to justice, a judicial approval, rightness. (link) This justice, judicial approval, and rightness is ascribed to the one trusting in Christ. (Rom. 3:22)

Regarding the justice or rightness of God, and that the one who is just (right, judicially approved by God) will have eternal life by faith (Rom. 1:17), the apostle continues: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." (Rom. 1:18) Here is our context for what follows to the end of the first chapter: the people being referred to are those who suppress the truth within the framework of their own ungodliness and wickedness. What truth are these individuals suppressing? The truth regarding the existence of God is suppressed: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them." (Rom. 1:19)

These people, who suppress the truth regarding the existence of God, who today some might call atheists, know of the existence of God, but refuse to acknowledge the existence of God (Rom. 1:19, 20): "for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened." (Rom. 1:21, emphasis added) I am uncomfortable naming these particular people atheists, since atheists, in the modern sense, do not know God exists, as do the referents in this passage. These particular referents consider themselves wise, yet they exchange "the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" as objects of their worship (Rom. 1:23), an act that God deems not wise but utterly foolish. (Rom. 1:22b) Are these referred-to individuals Jewish or Gentile?

Many scholars insist that the audience being addressed are Jewish Christians in Rome.1 Internal evidence, especially the primary focus of answering the question regarding God and the ancient Jewish people at Romans 9-11, attests to a Jewish audience. However, the apostle also notes Gentiles in the audience, as well. (Rom. 11:13, 18, 19, 20) The "wrath of God" against all wickedness is presently being revealed (Rom. 1:18), meaning, Jewish wickedness and Gentile2 wickedness is being judged by the God of justice. Atheism is not merely a Gentile problem. But understand this: the people being referred to know of the existence of God but refuse to worship God. (Rom. 1:21) In other words, what the apostle is not suggesting is that human depravity precludes knowledge of the existence of God, and certainly not when God "makes plain" to people through creation the existence of God.

We must keep in mind at all times during this study the immediate referents: the people in view are those who know of the existence of God but continually refuse to acknowledge or worship the God they know to exist. What is the divine response to these individuals who perpetually reject the God they know to exist? "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen." (Rom. 1:24, 25, emphasis added) May we not rightly conclude, then, that those who acknowledge the existence of God shown to them through creation, and who worship this Creator-God, will not be rejected by this God?

This seems a reasonable conclusion given the fact that the cause of God "giving them up" (Rom. 1:24) is due to their initial rejection of God's existence: i.e., "because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator." (Rom. 1:25) But the apostle then turns our attention to a specific manner of the result of God giving such people up: "in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves." (Rom. 1:24) How did God's rejection of such people manifest in the degradation of their bodies with each other? Or are we to think that God chooses not to restrain the degradation of the bodies of these people with each other?

Some Christians throughout church history, represented in the conservative evangelical traditionalist approach to Scripture and the subject of homosexuality, erroneously, naïvely, and sophomorically imagine that "homosexuality" is the curse of God upon a Christ-rejecting world.3 If so, then explain rampant immorality and unbelief among heterosexuals, and that many heterosexuals, given over to the lusts of their hearts to impurity, degrade their bodies among themselves. This traditionalist interpretation must be rejected if we are to maintain a high view of Scripture, the Gospel, and greatly value truth and reality.

St Paul continues the thought he began at Romans 1:24-25: "For this reason," meaning because these individuals continually reject the God they know exists, "God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." (Rom. 1:26, 27) The apostle reasserts the cause for this abandonment by God: "And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God [cf. Rom. 1:21, 23, 25], God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done." (Rom. 1:28) Is the apostle referring here to homosexuals as we understand homosexuality?

As I note in the previous post, "The Abomination above All Other Abominations," the word "homosexual" does not actually occur in the Hebrew or Christian (Greek) scriptures: "homosexual" is not, strictly, a biblical word. The fact that the word appears in English versions of the Bible indicates that scholars are actually interpreting some passages rather than translating them from the original languages. The late Dr. John Boswell notes that "no extant [surviving] text or manuscript, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic, contains such a word. In fact none of these languages ever contained a word corresponding to the English 'homosexual,' nor did any languages have such a term before the late nineteenth century."4 The English word "homosexual," and its contextual cognates (derived from Latin), originates from German psychologist Karoly Maria Benkert in a letter published as late as 1868. (link)

We contextualize homosexuality, simply, as same-gendered attraction: a male is physically (and/or emotionally, psychologically, or even ontologically) attracted to males and a female is, in the same manner, attracted to females. Such individuals are not attracted to the opposite gender: a homosexual male is not physically (and/or emotionally, psychologically, or even ontologically) attracted to females and a homosexual female is, in the same vein, not attracted to males. If a male or a female can be attracted to both the same and the opposite gender then such a one is more properly perceived as bisexual (or, perhaps, pansexual, meaning, the individual is not particularly attracted to gender per se). What of nature?

By "nature," we are referring to that which is deemed natural, or the inner cognitive processes that may produce and sustain certain phenomena (borrowed and nuanced from TheFreeDictionary). To the homosexual, same-sex attraction appears as natural a function and reality as does breathing, as does existing. There is no inner conflict that vies to control same-sex passions. For the homosexual, in a same-gendered context, there remains no "exchange" of what is sensed as natural regarding one's cognitive, emotional, or sexual function. So, then, when we learn from St Paul that the individuals who know God, but who refuse to acknowledge and worship the God they know to exist, "exchange" natural intercourse for unnatural (Rom 1:26), we are right to ask the question, Natural from whose perspective? Is Paul using "nature" in an objective sense or referring to their "nature"?


Unfortunately, the apostle does not inform us of his use of nature, and I think he fails to do so because he is using this passage in order to highlight a more serious problem (which is noted below). Let us address both uses of the concept of nature here. Let us assume that the apostle is indicating an objective sense of nature -- i.e., what is "natural" is that a man should desire a woman and a woman should desire a man. Such referents in this passage "exchange" the "natural" means of sexual intercourse for what is "unnatural," and what is "unnatural," objectively, is that a man desires to have sex with another man and a woman desires to have sex with another woman. In such a scenario, God decides to allow these people to fully vent their "impure" and "degrading passions" in the expressing of such via sexual activity. God does this, mind you, because these same individuals refuse to acknowledge what they already know -- that God exists. What of homosexuality, then?

My concluding question is actually a challenge. If such individuals -- who know of the existence of God through nature because God makes such plain to them -- choose to acknowledge and worship the God they know to exist, yet also maintain same-sex passions, will God reject such people? Moreover, will God bless the union of such people, and still consider their passions "impure" and a "degrading of their bodies among themselves"? (Rom. 1:24) We must ask this question because the only reason given why God rejects these people is not because of their alleged same-sex passions, or same-gendered attraction, but because they refuse to acknowledge the God they know to exist (Rom. 1:21, 23, 25, 28).

But what if the apostle is suggesting another interpretative possibility? What if the referred-to "nature" is the heterosexual nature they maintained for much of their lives? If some people are able to suppress the truth that they know (Rom. 1:21) then can they not also suppress and actually betray the truth of their own cognitive nature? The late Dr. John Boswell posits that the referents in this passage are straight men and straight women who "exchange" what is "natural" to them (opposite-sex intercourse) and explore and engage in what is "unnatural" to them (same-sex intercourse). He notes: "The concept of 'natural law' was not fully developed until more than a millennium after Paul's death, and it is anachronistic to read it into his words. For Paul, 'nature' was not a question of universal law or truth but, rather, a matter of the character of some person or group of persons, a character which was largely ethnic and entirely human."5 Dr. James Brownson responds:
There is certainly textual evidence in Romans 1 to back up at least some of Boswell's claim. This entire discussion of human sinfulness is introduced by the claim that humans "suppress the truth" that they already, in some sense, know (Rom. 1:28). Paul speaks of how women "exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural," and how men "gave up" (aphentes, literally "left behind") "natural intercourse with women" and "were consumed with passion for each other." It is impossible to imagine how one can "exchange" something that one does not, in some sense, already possess. Similarly, one cannot "give up" or "leave behind" something that is not already in one's possession or nature.6
Consider also that the men who ἀφέντες, give up or leave aside or leave behind, that which is "natural" to them (Rom. 1:27) is written as a second aorist active participle, indicating action on the part of the men, and not an act that happened to them as a result of outside forces. Dr. Brownson concludes: "Therefore, 'nature' in Romans 1 must include, to some extent, the sense of one's own nature or disposition."7 In this case, then, the referents are actually not homosexuals but heterosexuals who betray their own nature. Homosexuals who are attracted to their own gender are not betraying their nature, or disposition or orientation, when they sense their nature being drawn toward a member of their own gender.

While traditionalists like Drs. Robert Gagnon and Thomas Schmidt imagine that the apostle, at Romans 1:18-32, is referring to all of humanity in a general sense (and I disagree: see footnote 2), Brownson evinces the implausible nature of this claim: "I must confess that I find this argument inscrutable. Romans 1:27 speaks of specific men who 'leave behind the natural use of women' and instead engage in sex with other men. It is difficult to see how the focus on corporate rebellion clarifies the text in any way."8 Moreover, the so-imagined (untenable) corporate interpretation not only ignores the particularity of certain men ("those," "them," cf. Rom. 1:18, 19) but also fails to explain the reason why all (the corporate) non-believers do not exhibit the same consequences mentioned at Romans 1:24-32.

Furthermore, Dr. Boswell underscores the fact that the English-translated "against nature" at Romans 1:26 is not accurate, as παρὰ more properly refers to that which is "more than," or "in excess of."9 This adds further support to the notion that these particular persons were behaving not necessarily "against nature," as God may have ordained the complementarity of a male and a female, but above and beyond their own (heterosexual) nature. Again, Brownson suggests that Boswell is correct, "and stands on strong exegetical basis" by noting that "one's individual nature or disposition is an important part of what Paul means when he says that same-sex eroticism is unnatural" for those with a heterosexual disposition. Such people "deny not only the 'objective' nature evident in the wider human community and the visible world" but also "deny their own 'subjective' nature."10 But there is more.

If we suggest that the referents are people who know God but who refuse to acknowledge what they know about God, i.e., that God exists, and these same individuals betray their own inner truth as well, and engage in (homo-)sexual activity, they ipso facto betray truth and reality. (Yes, there are heterosexual individuals who explore other forms of sexual experiences in addition to their own heterosexual disposition -- e.g., orgies, bisexuality, homosexuality, sex with transgenders, bestiality.) But the homosexual proper does not (nor do even most heterosexuals proper) typically act against or beyond his or her own nature.

If we suggest that the referents are people who know God but who refuse to acknowledge what they know about God, i.e, that God exists, and these same individuals are people who betray the so-imagined God-ordained complementarian nature of male and female union, then we must have an answer as to why God does not reject such individuals for their alleged same-sex attraction, and same-sex sexual activity, rather than by refusing to acknowledge and worship the Creator-God they know to exist. We must also provide an answer as to whether God will bless the union of these same-sex attracted individuals if they acknowledge and worship God in Christ and who, by grace through faith, continue their lives in Jesus. If one suggests that God will deliver such people from their same-sex attractions then we are hard-pressed to understand why God fails everyday to do so.

I remain unconvinced that this passage is addressing homosexuality as we understand the issue in the modern era. Yet is not the primary focus of St Paul in this passage not the issue of homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality or human sexuality in general but to highlight the hypocrisy of some Christians? We read: "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." (Rom. 2:1) The apostle writes at length about the immorality and idolatry of some unbelievers only to expose the hypocrisy of immoral and idolatrous Christians who are pointing their proverbial (self-)righteous finger at those outside the Christian tradition. I admit that I remain quite perplexed at how most conservative evangelical traditionalists miss this point of the apostle. They spill so much ink denouncing "homosexuality" from this passage and miss the point of St Paul.

While the Christians at Rome may not all be guilty of betraying their own nature, they may be exhibiting other sins, such as are listed at Romans 1:29-31: e.g., covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, haughtiness, boastfulness, foolishness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. He asks: "Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?" (Rom. 2:3) Many Christians have maintained a condemning attitude throughout the history of Christianity and that will not likely cease anytime soon. There is a cognitive element within the agenda to be holy that our depravity tends to turn outward toward others in judgment. The message of the apostle to such Christians is to repent.

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1 Eckhard J. Schnabel, "Romans," in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), 1223-24.

2 I do not subscribe to the theory positing St Paul referring to all of non-Jewish humanity as pagans at Romans 1:18-32, and that all such pagans reject the existence of God due to wickedness stemming from human depravity, since not all Gentiles refuse to acknowledge the existence of God shown to them by God through creation. The apostle refers to a certain "those" (Rom. 1:18) who by their wickedness suppress the truth, not to "all" of humanity corporately, or not only of all so-called pagans corporately. Consider also that the only distinction between a Jewish person and a Gentile person is the covenant of God with the people of Israel whom God created in and through Abraham -- a person who worshiped idols in the land of Ur prior to being called by God to the service of God. Being Jewish, then, is not an ontological distinction from being Gentile: we are all human beings.

3 Eckhard J. Schnabel comments: "When people reject God and worship a self-made substitute, they will also violate the divinely created order [i.e., that a man and a woman are created by God for that relationship and, therefore, homosexuality is a violation of that order] for humankind." ("Romans," Baker, 1230) Why, then, are all atheists not homosexuals? This self-refuting interpretation is rendered moot by reality.

4 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 92.

5 Ibid., 110.

6 James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 229.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 230.

9 Boswell, 111.

10 Brownson, 231.