Romans addresses unrestrained lust, not sexual orientation.
In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns lustful same-sex behavior between men, and likely between women as well.
"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." -Romans 1:26-27
- In Romans 1-3, Paul argues that all people—Jewish and Gentile— are in need of salvation. In Romans 2, he speaks to his fellow Jews, saying that even one violation of the Law renders them in need of reconciliation to God.
- In Romans 1, Paul says that Gentiles, too, need salvation, because while they do not have a written law to break, they have violated what they know to be true about God through his creation. Rather than worshiping God, they worshiped idols, and as a result, God gave them over to their own devices.
- God also “gave them over to the lusts of their hearts,” and they became “inflamed with lust” and engaged in sexual behavior with people of the same sex.
In the ancient world, it was assumed that all people could be satisfied with heterosexual sex, but that some people went beyond it due to their insatiable lust—leading them to engage in same-sex behavior.
- In his commentary on Romans 1:26-27, John Chrysostom wrote, “You see that the whole of desire comes from an excess which cannot contain itself within its proper limits.”
- Paul isn’t condemning being gay as opposed to being straight. He is condemning self-seeking excess as opposed to moderation—a concern made clear by his repeated use of the term “lustful,” and by his description of people “exchanging” or “abandoning” heterosexual sex.
- Committed same-sex relationships simply aren’t in view in Romans 1.
Even if Paul describes only lustful behavior and not loving relationships, he uses the terms “natural,” “unnatural,” and “shameful” to describe same-sex couplings. Wouldn’t that imply that all same-sex relationships are sinful, regardless of how loving and committed the partners are?
- Paul uses the exact same Greek words in 1 Corinthians 11 as he does in Romans 1. But most Christians today believe the terms “nature” (physis) and “disgrace” (atimia) in 1 Corinthians 11 describe what was customary in the first century, not what should be a universal rule for Christians about hair length.
- In fact, we know that long hair in men isn’t always shameful, because the Nazirite vow forbade men from cutting their hair (Numbers 6:5). Samson’s decision to cut his hair was shameful in his context, while his long hair was actually a source of strength (Judges 16:17-19). What is honorable and shameful varies across times and cultures.
- If the terms “nature” and “disgrace” are culturally specific in 1 Corinthians 11, then we must ask whether they are also culturally specific in Romans 1. In the ancient world, same-sex behavior between men was regarded as shameful and unnatural because it reduced the status of the passive male to the lower cultural status of a female. But for Christians who believe that men and women should have equal value in Christ, that logic doesn't apply.
What is the “due penalty for their error” that Paul describes in Romans 1:27?
- The idol worshipers failed to give God the honor he was due, so God allowed them to dishonor themselves as the penalty for their idolatrous error. Their shameful behavior was the penalty.
- Male passivity, female dominance, and a lack of self-control made same-sex behavior emblematic of excess and dishonor. These factors also made same-sex relations an apt illustration of what happens when we fail to honor God: we ourselves are given over to dishonor.
- But the problems Paul focuses on in Romans 1 do not characterize same-sex unions today that are based on love, commitment, and self-giving.