Paul’s Letter to the Romans

by Paul Varnell on November 12, 2003

First published Nov. 12, 2003, in the Chicago Free Press. This version has been slightly revised.

One of the Bible verses most frequently cited by conservative, anti-gay Christians occurs in the Letter to the Romans, generally attributed - except for its final verses - to the Apostle Paul, Romans 1:26-27:

(26) "For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural," (27) "and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error." (Revised Standard Version)

First of all, it is important to notice that although Paul clearly refers to sexual acts between males, it is not clear at all that he is referring to lesbian behavior. Not only does Paul distinguish women from men, but just where the parallelism of the two verses would lead us to expect it he specifically avoids saying anything like "woman committing shameless acts with women." It is only in the case of men that Paul specifies homosexual sex as the "unnatural" behavior he objects to. So Paul may be thinking of some other behavior by women.

Be that as it may, the usual gay Christian interpretation of this passage is that Paul had little concept of a life-long homosexual orientation and so regarded homosexual acts as a deviation from a natural heterosexuality by people who were unusually lustful or wanton or rebellious. In that case Paul's argument would not apply homosexuality as we understand it today.

That may well be true. But, even if so, exactly what theological point Paul was trying to make about homosexual behavior is far from clear and, on closer examination, seems far different from what both gay and anti-gay Christians assume. But that point emerges only when the verses are seen in context of the whole section (or "pericope") where they appear: Romans 1:18-32.

In this insistent and repetitious passage dense with "therefores" and "becauses" that obscure a lack of real argument, Paul asserts that his God's eternal power and deity (singularity, omnipotence) were once perceptible through the "eye of reason" by all men in the things God created.

But despite this evidence for an invisible, transcendent God, people refused to honor and worship him and being "vain in their reasoning" invented pagan gods - "created things," "images resembling mortal man, or birds, or animals or reptiles." (Notice, in passing, the glancing allusion to deified emperors.)

In other words, Paul claims that knowledge of his God had been available and that people who refused to acknowledge him were led astray by their own thinking "and their misguided minds are plunged into darkness." Referring to the ancient Greek and Roman poets, priests and intellectuals, Paul says, "They boast of their wisdom, but they have made fools of themselves."

And because they fail to acknowledge Paul's invisible God, nothing keeps them from depraved reason and wrong conduct. Here is Paul: "God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves BECAUSE they have bartered away the true God for a false one ..." (Romans 1:24-25, emphasis added).

The word "because" is key. Paul is offering his explanation for homosexual desire and behavior - as well as a generic explanation for other things he regards as improper - including people who are "gossips, slanderers, insolent, haughty, haters of God, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless," etc. (Romans 1:28-31)

So Paul's argument refers to cultures that rejected an earlier natural knowledge of God available by the eye of reason and turned to worship other, visible, pagan gods. And it is the worship of pagan gods that leads them to engage in these various types of conduct Paul deplores.

Put the other way around, Paul's claim is that homosexual desire and behavior are (are only?) the result of belief in pagan gods. And belief in pagan gods comes about when people reject the light of reason and place more confidence in their own theological imaginings.

But if that is so, then Paul's claim about the origin and significance of homosexual desire and conduct can hardly apply to people who did not reject an earlier belief in God and turn to pagan gods. Specifically, it hardly applies to homosexuals who are Christians or Christians who come to realize their homosexuality. Paul amateur theologico-psychologizing has no explanation for such a thing.

Furthermore, it is not clear in any case how a supposed primordial belief in or "perception" of a unitary, transcendent god could have provided anyone with a particular ethical code, much less any specific commands about sexual behavior. Paul was clearly aware of that difficulty because he struggled to fill the gap later by postulating that some pagans have the law "by nature," "written on their hearts" (Romans 2:14-15). But he is unable to explain - nor does he try to explain - how this happens or why some peoples do and others do not have it "by nature."

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