My heart beating and my hands shaking, I read Romans 1:24-27. Aware that I am attracted to other women, knowing that my commitment to the authority of scripture meant I wouldn’t be willing to shrug or explain these verses away, I was afraid of what they meant for my life, and what they said about me as a person.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring 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. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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 themselves the due penalty for their error.
Do these words apply to me? I’m in love with a woman, does that mean I’m experiencing shameful, unnatural attraction? Has God me up to the “lusts of [my] heart to impurity”? And if I ever were to follow my inclinations and have a romantic relationship with a woman, no matter how committed and caring I am, would this relationships be shameful, unnatural, and would I receive in myself some type of “due penalty for [my] error?
Many believe these words are the most damning in scripture for those who would dare affirm LGBT sexuality. For many, though it’s easy to see how the other passages of scripture are unrelated to love between people of the same gender, Romans 1:24-27 is the exception.
My conclusions are different. After much prayer and study, I found the good news in these verses. I believe it has nothing to do with loving and romantic care between people of the same gender, but that they still have an important word to speak to all of us—gay straight, and bisexual alike.
It’s About Consumption Not Care
Let’s start with verse 24, because that is the verse that first introduces the conversation about sexual acts:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.
Too often Romans 1:24-27 is read backwards, with the same-sex acts mentioned at the very end in verse 27 read into verses 24 to 26, but that’s the wrong way to read. The first introduction is that lust and impurity with groups of people who are dishonoring their bodies not with private intimacy between two, but “among themselves.”
Paul is talking here about the same thing he addressed later in the same book. Romans 13:13 says, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”
Paul is writing to Rome. In this passage he is specifically speaking about Gentiles to a Jewish audience living in Rome. So he was speaking about Romans. We know that wealthy Romans sometimes had orgies, often involving slaves and inferiors. This behavior is referenced in scripture and there are extrabiblical accounts as well. Read Browson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality for more information. These men would have had wives waiting at home with no say in the matter while they indulged in orgies.
This is Paul’s introduction to the topic and should not be separated from the continuing discussion in verses 26-27 which only expand on verse 24.
To say that these married Romans were a group of gay men would be to read into the text in the service of a point that one is seeking to make, but not the point Paul was making. To say that these relationships between people of the same gender involved fidelity and care is unfaithful to the text. The wives would certainly disagree.
It’s a Result of Idolatry
Perhaps the first part of this passage I noticed did not apply to me at all was when it spoke of this same-sex eroticism as being the result of idolatry. After describing idolaters who abandoned their creator for images and objects of created things, they “therefore” were given up to “lust of their hearts and impurity” (vs. 24).
Just in case that word “therefore” isn’t convincing enough. Paul made it explicitly clear in verse 25, stating that this is happening “because” of their exchanging worship of God for worship of images. He then returns to further explain the nature of the sexual sin in verses 26-27.
I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I certainly hadn’t abandoned worship of God. I was at seminary pursuing full-time ministry as a vocation. I wanted to be faithful to God, serve God and my church in ministry, I was fully committed to serving God and my church for the rest of my life, whether or not I was offered a job to do so.
What was I doing wrong? Why was I experiencing something that was the result of idolatry?
Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe my sexual orientation is something different. Surely what was happening to me didn’t fit what Paul was describing as a continued falling away from God that began with idolatry. If the first part didn’t fit, maybe this part didn’t fit either.
The Theme of the Passage is About Objectification
Stepping back and looking at the big picture of this passage made it make more sense. Paul does make this context clear.
Worship of God is replaced with images; their fidelity to God is replaced by objects that look like created things.
Honorable sexual relationships were replaced with dishonorable; their fidelity to their spouses also broke down and was replaced by sexual objectification of others.
Righteous treatment of others was replaced by exploitation, malice, hate, and harm; their fidelity to humanity in general broke down.
I’ve written an in-depth explanation of how this works in the context of the passage if you would like to understand it better.
Same-sex sex is an especially useful example in this case precisely because in their society it never happened in the context of love and fidelity. There was always some level of exploitation whether it was sexual assault, pederasty, or orgies as in this case.
Same-sex sexuality wouldn’t serve as such a good example if Paul were writing today and not 2,000 years ago, because two men or two women who are married, share a mortgage, and raise children would be completely out of place in this passage.
For those who object, saying that what’s important is that Paul says “men committing shameless acts with men” is speaking not to context but to the specific acts, I have two things to consider.
First, we don’t treat all of Paul’s writings that way. When he says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head,” we certainly don’t take this as a commandment or a matter of church discipline. It’s the context of their day that men have short hair and women long hair, and violation of this cultural standard is shameful.
Second, this verse does occur in a context. Paul is talking about specific people who go from idolatry to sexual consumption to generally consuming other human being in their hateful and selfish conduct.
Same-sex eroticism only and always occurs in such contexts in scripture. Perhaps there is a reason for that. Maybe that’s the only context the biblical writers ever considered? We certainly have no evidence otherwise.
Vocabulary of Unbridled Lust
In his description of the behavior of the Romans, Paul scours the dictionary for every word he can use to describe their behavior in terms of consuming and exclusive lust, often stacking them on top of each other for emphasis.
In the course of three verses (24,26-27) Paul uses the words epithumia, pathe, exekauthesan, and orexei, all synonyms for lust. Some of these words individually are used elsewhere in the context of marriage, but taken together, with no context or indication of care and love, Paul has something else entirely in mind.
He is emphatically communicating his point. This isn’t the healthy sexual appetite in the context of care and fidelity, but lust, passion, desire, and craving unbridled and immoderate.
No Meaning for Same-Sex Couples
So what makes people willing to apply a verse about orgies in the context of idolatry, adultery, and objectification to same-sex couples? Same-sex couples do not belong in this passage. They wouldn’t fit. That much should be obvious.
One reason is probably that people are looking for a direct answer from scripture to their question about whether same-sex relationships are wrong. I understand that desire. But we shouldn’t try to force scripture to answer directly questions it never asked directly. When we are asking a question that was never asked in the Bible, we shouldn’t expect a direct answer.
Paul answered the questions of the churches in Rome in the 1st century. Not the questions in Ireland in the 5th century. Not the questions in China in the 14th century. Not the questions in modern Western cultures in the 21st century.
Some things are timeless. There are basic questions about love, the worship of God, and the treatment of others that are asked by all people at all times. The questions about sexual orientation do not fall in this category, and there are many other questions in our modern society that aren’t answered directly in scripture.
God must trust us to apply his principles. God must expect us to do the same thing Jesus did in Matthew 5-7 and understand the heart of God’s word and how it applies in our lives.
The other reason this passage is often applied to LGBT people is less innocent. The reason someone who does understand the context would think this passage is appropriate to same-sex couples is if they believe such relationships are inherently selfish and characterized by uncontrolled lust, objectification, and the breakdown of basic fidelity.
In other words, they believe LGBT people are inherently inferior and that when we make loving commitments to each other we aren’t motivated by love and care like those who make commitments to people of the opposite gender. They think we belong in Romans 1 with idolaters, people consumed by lust, hateful, arrogant, and foolish people who despise righteousness.
When you encounter such interpretations, you can be sure the willingness to apply these texts to people like myself are not based on a careful reading of scripture. Sometimes what’s really happening is a misunderstanding of who LGBT people are. It’s a misunderstanding of the type that once landed same-sex couples in prison in America for expressing affection (and still does in many countries), that leads to accusations of LGBT people being pedophiles for no reason but their orientation, and that fosters disgust, hate, and sometimes violence against sexual minorities. This understanding has no place in the heart of a Jesus follower.
Beloved LGBT readers, when you find in yourself love that is holy and good, the desire to give to another person all the beautiful ideals given to us in 1 Corinthians 13, and the desire to unite yourself with another human in such love, I hope you can see that your love is not what is being described by Paul. I hope you can learn to embrace the queer and beautiful love you have been given by God. I hope you can embrace the truth that is in Jesus, that love is worth sacrifice.