I promised we’d come around to Romans chapter one, and here we are. This will be a long post, and up front I want to mention how we’ll do this… we are going to try to look at Romans 1 with fresh eyes, if that’s possible. We’ll also spend some time talking about the nature of sin and an individual’s conscience. Our third stream of thought will have to do with identifying and relinquishing certain presumptions which stigmatize and hurt LGBTQ Christians.
I want to say at the beginning that even in the years before I came to hold views of faith and scripture which affirmed my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, I had a hard time relying on Romans 1:18-32 as a key non-affirming passage. Most of my reticence was due to my not understanding from WHERE IN THE WORLD the section in verses 18-32 even came. The passage just didn’t seem to fit the letter to Rome at all. Paul’s all happy and flowers and gospel joy, and then boom, people are crazy horrible. When I was young I often heard the saying, “If a man gets Romans, God gets the man.” Considering the overall themes of grace, God’s power over condemnation, and a robust spiritual rebirth, I was confused by this passage in chapter one. Let’s take a quick look at the verses in question, Romans 1:18-32 NRSV…
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 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. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 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. 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 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. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Alright, Paul seems to be talking about some really bad folks. Verses 18-23 introduce us to these people… they have known God, at least by virtue of creation’s witness, but it seems they knew much more of God. They had truth, but they chose to consciously suppress that truth. Verse 32 affirms this idea, saying that they understood the gravity of rebellion, but still chose to rebel and reveled in other people’s defiance of God.
They became idolaters, worshipping images of humanity and animals, and this seems to be the point of pivot for them. Becoming idolaters precipitated God’s response; God gave them up. In the Greek Paul uses a term of resignation, the same word used when Pilate gave Jesus over to an angry crowd to be crucified (John 19:16), and the same word describing the moment Jesus gave up his spirit on the cross (John 19:30). Total resignation.
God’s response to their conscious choice to rebel is to let them go and to experience the depths of their rebellion. With total resignation God let’s them go into extremes of their desires. There is a statement and restatement with verses 24-26. God gave them up to degrading lusts because of their idolatry, because of which God gave them up to degrading lusts. If there’s a clear message here it’s that God is resigned to these people’s rebellion.
Now we get into the nitty gritty. Paul begins to elaborate on what these people do in their lusts after God has given them up…
- Women begin to engage in “unnatural” sex. The word unnatural is the same word that Paul will later use to describe the difference between natural branches upon an olive tree and those grafted to the tree in Romans 11. Paul doesn’t give specifics about what is unnatural about the sex in which these women are engaging.
- Men had sex with one another. Paul is clear in his language that these men are having sex with one another. When he shifts to speaking of the men he says that the men are “likewise” or “in the same manner” moving away from what is natural. Also, as a direct result, these men received some type of recompense, one matching their behavior.
Now again, in verse 28, God is resigning them to their trajectory of rebellion and enmity. Paul goes on with a list of further behaviors which marked their rebellion, and we’ll list those as enumerated in the NRSV:
- They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.
- Full of envy
- they are gossips
- inventors of evil
- rebellious toward parents
It seems safe to agree that Paul can’t say enough about how badly these people want to reject and rebel against God. The first question we now must ask is whether Paul is speaking rhetorically or if he is speaking about an actual group of people. The reason we ask this question is because of the next few verses, Romans 2:1-3…
1 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. 2 You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3 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?
Paul has used all that extremely graphic language and the laundry list of accusations to make a point about his audience’s own culpability and the absurdity of their judging others. Wow. Paul paints a word picture of the people his audience would most recognize as enemies and outsiders to God’s grace, and then says they are the same, they do the same, and they are in the same place of judgement. The rest of chapter two continues this discussion by contrasting what makes a person righteous before God or simply a religious hypocrite.
But I thought Romans 1 was about gay people?
We do some interesting (as in mistaken) things with this passage. First, we don’t read it in the context of Paul’s point about not judging others, and so we use it to judge. Oooops. Second, we selectively read certain of the behaviors backward through the passage to identify people today with rebelliousness, in contrast to Paul’s first presenting their rebellion as the reason for the behavior. Third, we don’t engage the use of the word unnatural, but simply read it as sinful.
Context & Message
To the first point, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a person who fits this list of naughtiness in Romans 1:18-32. I know I’ve been guilty of gossip, envy and even some ruthlessness on occasion. But the point of this passage from Paul seems to be a lesson on humility: think of the person you most believe to be the epitome of living in rebellion to God, then put yourself in their shoes, because you’re in their shoes. The sexuality of the passage is unrestrained, excessive and driven by lust. It’s also heavily associated with the idolatry of worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. And, though the women are having some type of sex which qualifies as unnatural, we again see the habit of ancient writers to dwell on the same-sex activities between males. Go and spend some time with Leviticus 18 & 20 to get a feel for the way a woman’s sexuality is treated differently than a man’s. Her role is passive; she “presents herself to an animal for sex” while a male is in the active role of having sex with someone or something. And an honest reading of Romans 1, without backward implying same-sex relations as described for the men, leaves us in the predicament of not having a single scriptural passage about a woman having sexual relations with another woman, from Leviticus on to all of Paul’s passages. Are women exempt from the scriptural same-sex debate?
This is again all about reading and handling scripture with respect and honesty. It’s the same as in our discussion on Sodom when we showed how overlaying our obsession with the attempted rape in Genesis 19 obscures what all later biblical writers are actually teaching us about the city’s destruction. When we obsess over the sexuality in the verses in Romans 1 we completely miss the lessons of judging, hypocrisy and humility that Paul is trying to communicate to the Christians in Rome.
To the second point, we have had the tendency to read this passage backwards, choosing something from the listed behaviors that we see or imply into the lives of someone around us, and then label them as rebellious and in defiance to God. Some have taken same-sex orientation as a sign of rejecting God because the rebellious male idolaters in Romans 1 engage in same-sex activities. Therefore many straight Christians have been taught that any and all same-sex activity is a sign of rejecting God.
Our assumptions and backward readings have led us to say extremely hurtful things to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Because of our backward reading of texts like this one, we assume that a person is only LGBTQ by a conscious choice to rebel against God. We make assumptions that all LGBTQ people live in an excess of lust and unrestrained unprincipled sex. By the way, when Paul revisits questionable behavior later on in chapter two, the only sexual reference is to adultery, that is sexual infidelity.
A major problem with our assumption of other people’s rebellion is that we are making implications about their conscience that we have no right to do. As people of faith and readers of the scriptures we know that a person’s conscience is often the basis for whether something is right or wrong for an individual to do, such as eating or fasting (1 Corinthians 8) or doing or avoiding the doing of good (James 4). We have been taught to rely on our conscience. Why would be deny other’s the same ability?
Assuming that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers have made a conscious decision to rebel against God and need only repent of that decision is problematic in the extreme. Too many of our precious LGBTQ brothers and sisters have shared their stories of the long years yearning not to be gay for us to continue ignoring or marginalizing their experience and faith. We need only listen.
I was sitting at lunch a week or so ago with two gay brothers in Christ who were lamenting how hard it can be to date and fall in love, as Christians. They were frustrated with the sexual promiscuity in many men in the gay dating scene where they lived. They yearned for a committed relationship of trust, monogamy and lasting mutual care. I had to chuckle a few times because their desires and frustrations so perfectly aligned with the desires and frustrations of any two straight Christians with whom I’ve ever had the same conversation. We are the same, but with different sexual orientations. Our shared faith calls us to the same desires of fidelity and commitment. Straight Christians often use the phrase “Gay Lifestyle” to condemn all gay people as sexually promiscuous. That is sinfully unfair and untrue. LGBTQ Christians could just as easily refer to the “Straight Lifestyle” to condemn all us straight folks for the sexual infidelity and excesses in straight dating and relationships. 50 Shades of Grey, anyone?
And on the third point, we read the word unnatural as though it were a synonym for sinful. While something may in fact be both unnatural and sinful, that remains a dangerous way to read scripture. The use of the word unnatural should clue us in that Paul is speaking out of a combination of his religious mind and cultural mind: his worldview. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul has a similar discussion on how it’s unnatural for a man to pray his head covered, or for a woman to pray with her head not covered. Paul assumes his audience, holding a similar worldview, will easily see that nature underscores his point. Huh? Doesn’t work as well for me… every SINGLE rendering of Jesus I saw while growing up had him in long hair, and yet if I didn’t doff my cap at a high school football game during the prayer someone was going to slap me on the back of my head. How many non-affirming straight Christian women routinely condemn LGBTQ people on the basis of “nature” and yet never cover their heads to pray?
In point of fact, the “nature” language points us to patriarchy and it’s prevailing hold on the ancient worldview. Today, we live with an increasingly post-patriarchal worldview. Some Christians understand this and will intentionally fight for maintaing a patriarchal worldview (even though they support things like women voting or having careers, etc). Many only use the patriarchal assumptions when handy for undergirding religious arguments, while they go on living for the most part free of patriarchal restraints. There’s a big problem with patriarchy, today. We need to talk deeply and honestly about how and why we speak and act out of some patriarchal norms while ignoring others. If we don’t dig in with patriarchy then we’ll continue to use it to selectively attack and vilify our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. That’s a bit of foreshadowing for the other coming blog posts. =)
So, where are we with Romans 1?
It’s fair at this point to stop and get some coffee and let our heads clear. We’ve covered a lot of ground and talked a lot of talk, but where have we arrived? As I tried to conclude my blog on 1 Timothy 1:10 on common ground, I believe we can do the same with Romans 1 & 2.
Let’s agree that Paul’s point about judging others is a fair one and the one he intended to make. Is it really probable that his audience were all doing exactly what he was outlining as rebellious behavior in chapter one? Probably not, but his point was that none of us should be playing the “look at how bad they are” game with the people around us. I will never be able to justify myself by condemning others.
Paul did in fact speak of an excessive unrestrained sexuality in Romans 1, and it included same-sex activities for the men. But the list in Romans 1 is a different kind of list compared with 1 Timothy 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 or even a familiar passage like Galatians 5:13-26. In other lists Paul is casting a wide net of behaviors that are problematic for a Christian. In Romans 1 he is making a laundry list of what a particular group of rebellious God-hating people are doing. Because we don’t differentiate in the kind of list he’s making we have no qualms about pointing to Romans 1 as a passage about all same-sex activities without ever mentioning it is a specific group of rebellious people also involved in gossip, foolishness, envy and much more. Paul is not casting a net to catch a group of various people here, but instead outlining all that a particular group is doing.
Here’s the deal: I cannot with a clean conscience associate ANY of the LGBTQ Christians I know with that group of rebellious truth-haters and God-haters in Romans 1. It’s an impossibility. Their faith and their lives cry out against that association, even if they have a same-sex or bisexual orientation, or they identify as transgender. In truth, I can’t find many LBGTQ non-Christians I can associate with that group, if I’m honest in observing their attitudes and behaviors compared to Romans 1.
I think our common ground is found in Paul’s intention to teach humility, and that’s where we need to remain as faithful readers and interpreters of scripture. To stray from Paul’s intent and begin building secondary or tertiary teachings on broad same-sex generalizations, to the exclusion of all the other problematic behaviors in the passage, leaves us on very shaky ground exegetically and theologically.
Thanks for hanging with me through this long post. I know that we’re going to be in new territory here for a lot of faithful folks. We all have a lot of unlearning to do with these passages and the ways we’ve been taught to read them. I hope this is enlivening for all of us! I love to spend time with scripture. I love to realize that I’ve brought things to Paul and forced them onto his words, and then get to break him free to speak as he wanted to speak. I find it thrilling and chilling. May God bless the reading of the scriptures in our lives and give us the courage to stride faithfully and joyfully into scripture’s liberating warmth. So be it, world never ending!
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.