At first glance, what Paul tells the Romans in verse 26 sounds pretty plain:
But let’s look at everything Paul talks about surrounding this passage.
We’ll read this passage from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson, you can read along with me. If you have your own Bible, you can follow along with the translation you have and note the differences in language.
24So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. 25And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them – the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!
26Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either – women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. 27Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men – all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it – emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.
28Since they didn’t bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. 29And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, 30fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. 31Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. 32And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care – worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!
1Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. 2But God isn’t so easily diverted. God sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.3You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? 4Or did you think that because God is such a nice God, God would let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but not soft. In kindness God takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.
Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome from Corinth, the second largest city in the empire and the crossroads of world trade and culture. Writing at about the same time as Paul, Pausanius observed that there were over 1,000 religions in Corinth. The most prominent were the fertility cult of Aphrodite, worship of Apollo, and the Delphi Oracle, which was across the bay from Corinth. Paul’s readers would have been aware of the religious climate from which he wrote Romans and would have understood Paul a lot better than we do. Some of the same things that disturbed him in the “news reports” from Rome were also going on in Corinth, so Paul had some personal experience with his feelings about goings-on in Rome.
Rome was a very large, prosperous city – even in the first century. As in Corinth, Rome’s residents practiced many religions. “Some of the most popular [there] were devotion to the cult of the goddess Aphrodite and another to the cult of Apollo. One of the many practices of both of these cults was drunken, frenzied revelry that involved wanton sexual abandon. The temple of Aphrodite employed free (non-slave) boys and girls from the ages of about 9 to age 13 whose job was to be used in sexually servicing the men and women who came to the temple. The cult of Apollo hired boys from the age of 11 to 15 for the entertainment and pleasure of older men.”1 All of this refers to idolatrous religious practices that were common in the time of Paul.
Paul could not tolerate the use of such young people as sexual toys. Toys are things that can be thrown away when they become uninteresting or broken. Treating people in that way was (and is) extremely contrary to Christ’s command that we love – and deeply care – for each other.
Paul’s writings have been taken out of context and twisted to punish and oppress every identifiable minority in the world: Jews, children, women, people of African descent, slaves, politicians, divorced people, convicts, pro choice people, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans people, religious reformers, the mentally ill, and the list could go on and on. Paul’s writing is often difficult and confusing to understand. A lot of Paul’s writing is very difficult to translate. Since most of his letters were written in response to news from other people, reading Paul can be like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. We know, or think we know, what Paul is saying, but we have to guess what the other side has said. As 2 Peter 3:16-18 pointed out, we have to be on guard against using Paul’s writings in unhealthy and destructive ways.
The theme of the first 3 chapters of Romans is expressed in 1:16 (The Message):
Paul showed that all people equally need and can have Jesus in their lives. Paul’s gospel is inclusive, as expressed in Galatians:
Romans 1:26-27 is part of Paul’s vigorous denunciation of idolatrous religious worship and rituals. The passage contains some words that Paul only used here and nowhere else in his writings. Familiar words are used in unusual ways here. The passage is very difficult to translate. The argument is directed against some form of idolatry that would have been known to Paul’s readers. To us, 2,000 years later and in a totally different culture, the argument is vague and indirect. Make no mistake, however. Idolatry enters our lives in contemporary and innovative ways.
Verse 25 is clearly a denunciation of idol worship, “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature and not the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” Paul at no point in his writing dealt with same-sex orientation or the expression of love and affection between two people of the same sex who love each other.
The word “affections” in 1:26 – πάθος “pathos” or “passion” – is the same word used to speak of the suffering and death of Jesus in Acts 1:3 and does not mean what we mean by “passion” today. Erosis the Greek word for romantic love, but eros is never used even once in the Christian Testament. “Vile affections” in 1:26 probably refers to the frenzied state of mind that many ancient mystery cults induced in worshipers by means of wine, drugs, and music.
We do not know the meaning of καίομαι “burn” in 1:27, because Paul never used this particular word elsewhere, and its origin is uncertain. The term úβρíσαντι “against nature” is also strange here, since Paul, in Romans 11:21-24, uses exactly the same term to speak of God acting “against nature” by including the Gentiles with the Jews in the family of God. “Against nature” was used to speak of something that was not done in the usual way, but did not necessarily mean that something “against nature” was evil, since God also “acted against nature.”
One more word needs special attention. “Committing indecent acts” in 1:27 is translated by the King James Version as “working that which is unseemly.” Phillips goes far beyond the evidence and renders it as “Shameful horrors!” The Greek word is ἀσχήμων askemon and is formed of the word for “outer appearance” plus the negative particle. It speaks of the inner or hidden part or parts of the individual that are not ordinarily seen or known in public. “Indecent” in 1 Corinthians 12:23 referred to the parts of the body that remain hidden but are necessary and receive honor. 1 Corinthians 13:5 used the word to say that love does not behave “indecently.”
This word for “indecency” was used to translate Deuteronomy 24:1 into Greek to say that a man could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her.” The religious teachers argued endlessly about what “some indecency” meant. Some said it was anything that displeased the husband. Others were stricter and said it could only refer to adultery. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus commented on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, but he did not define the term.
Paul was certainly aware of the variety of ways that the teachers interpreted the word “indecency,” and he used it in a variety of ways himself. To read into “indecent acts” a whole world of homosexual ideas is to abandon the realities of objective academic study and to embark on useless and damaging speculation that cannot be supported by the meaning of the word or by Paul’s use of it elsewhere.
If Paul had intended to condemn homosexuals as the worst of all sinners, he certainly had the language skills to do a clearer job of it than emerges from Romans 1:26-27. The fact is that Paul nowhere condemned or mentioned romantic love and sexual relations between people of the same sex who love each other. Paul never commented on sexual orientation. As in the rest of the Bible, Paul nowhere even hinted that Lesbians and Gay men can or should change their sexual orientation.
In Romans 1:31, where the King James Version translated the Greek word ἄστοργος astorgos “without natural affection.” This is one of the characteristics of people “with a reprobate mind” (KJV of 1:28). The word for “reprobate” is more recently translated as “depraved” or “perverted” in order to fit more neatly the sexualizing of everything possible in the list. The literal meaning of “reprobate” (Greek δοκίμιον dokimion) is “to fail to measure up” or “to fail to meet the test” and simply means that the list of things that follows is the result of a mind that has abandoned God. The word astorgos, “without natural affection,” is used only here and in 2 Timothy 3:3. It has nothing at all to do with homosexuality or with sex. It is the Greek word for “family love” or “family ties” with the negative prefix. It refers to people who despise and reject their family members. Rather than being directed at homosexuals, it is a term that can be directed toward heterosexual people who despise and reject their own homosexual children and brothers and sisters! Modern translators, knowing this, usually render the word as “unloving,” and the implication of some sort of “unnatural” or “perverted” affection is removed.2
The use of Romans 1:26-27 against homosexuals turns out to be a blunt instrument to batter and wound people who were not intended in the original text. Paul clearly taught throughout Romans, Galatians, and his other letters that God’s freely given and all-inclusive love is for every person on earth.
Notice what Paul said about judging others in Romans 2:1 (NRSV):
The Real Message of Romans4
Paul wrote this letter to the Romans to ensure the unity of believers – Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul insisted on faith and love as the things that really matter. By misunderstanding Paul’s arguments, people unwittingly rely on tastes and customs instead of the Word of God. They argue about what is dirty or clean, dispute who is pure or impure, and pit homosexual against heterosexual. Thus, they divide the church over what does not matter in Christ. In God’s name, they conjure unreasonable fears, preach hatred, fuel oppression, and disrupt society at large. They commit a grave injustice, the very offense that Paul’s letter is meant to counter.
What Romans really says:
Scripture reassures us, “No one who trusts God like this – heart and soul – will ever regret it.” It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.”
With all this in mind, see if you get Paul’s sense of outrage about what is going on in Rome.
Let’s read Romans 1:18 to 2:4 again.
Does Paul make his message plain enough for you?
As GLBTQQA Christians, there have been times in our faith journeys when we have been divided – even divided between each other here at St. John’s.
What kinds of things have divided us rather than kept us together?
What controversies or behaviors have put wedges between GLBTQQA Christian friends?
Without dredging up old wounds and without going into any details at all, please share some of the most troublesome ones. Then, please share some of the most picky ones.
Let’s say there is a GLBTQQA Christian, named “Grace,” who lives in another country. A friend of Grace’s, “Ernie,” moved away and visited St. John’s MCC because Grace recommended it. Ernie called Grace up and was very upset to report that he didn’t really fit into our church because we weren’t acting very Christ-like. He cited the specific examples you mentioned above.
Using the same feeling of concern that Paul had for the church at Rome, what would Grace say to our church about the awful things Ernie found? How would Grace tell St. John’s folk that it is faith and love that really matter?
What could Grace say to Ernie to encourage him?
What could our church’s response to Grace’s words be?
What would your personal response be?
1 See The New Testament and Homosexuality by Robin Scroggs, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983 for detailed descriptions of the activities Paul hates.
2 from “Six Bible Passages” http://www.truluck.com/html/six_bible_passages.html
3 The News & Observer, Friday, June 3, 2005, p. 9A
4 From The Reverend Terri Steed’s Bible study “Romans 1:18-32 What is Unnatural?” a study prepared for Sunday Morning Topics in 1997. Thank you Terri!