There are those who, not knowing Scripture, do not believe it condemns homosexuality.1 There are also those who know well what Scripture says, yet simply choose not to believe it; it simply has no bearing on their lives. That is one issue. However, the past few decades there has been this attempt to, yes, “accept Scripture for what it actually says” regarding homosexuality, yet these interpreters have attempted to redefine what it says, for instance, by saying, “Well, Scripture always refers to homosexuality in regards to lust and going against a person’s ‘individual nature’.” What they mean is this: Scripture does not condemn homosexuality per se, it only condemns the act of a heterosexual committing homosexual acts, because that would be against the heterosexual’s nature. The reverse is thus also true: it is also sinful for someone who is a homosexual “by nature” to commit heterosexual acts. This interpretation is particularly apple to Romans 1:24-27, but is this really what this passage is about? Let’s take a look.
As I said above, this interpretation is really only ever applied to Romans 1:24-27. Of course, there is reason for this. Unlike other passages, it doesn’t seem like Paul is making a direct condemnation of homosexuality as, say, Moses did in Leviticus 18. As I see it, it is impossible to use this interpretation for passages like Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Judges 19, and 1 Corinthians 6. Those texts, especially Leviticus and 1 Corinthians, forthrightly condemn homosexuality as sin. No one can interpret or has successfully interpreted their way out of those passages without simply subverting their plain meaning. Now, we can say, “Jesus never said those things. That was Moses (Leviticus) and Paul (1 Corinthians). We are Christians!” This view, unfortunately, betrays a less-than-orthodox view of the doctrines of the Trinity, and deity of Christ, and the organic, verbal-plenary inspiration of Scripture. It also makes me ask, “Well, if Paul’s writings don’t matter, then why even put forth the effort for this passage in Romans?” But, that is a discussion for another time. For now, let’s dive directly into the Romans 1 passage and address this tendency to attempt to reinterpret the text in favor of homosexuality.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring 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 dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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 themselves the due penalty for their error.
Now, first it is both appropriate and very important that we establish a context for this passage. It will no doubt be misinterpreted without it. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is many times called “The Gospel According to Paul”, and rightly so. Paul, for the first chapter of this letter, is beginning his presentation of the gospel with the condition of man after the Fall. In this first chapter, Paul is laying down for his readers the process by which the sinful nature takes over, and God’s role in it. Here is the beginning of Paul’s discussion:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Notice the passage begins (v. 18) with this: “The wrath of God is [being] revealed (present tense),” followed by several subordinate causal statements (vv.19, 20, and 21—all beginning with “for”). Following that, there is a very important “therefore” (v. 24, our present passage). That is to say, God’s wrath is being revealed in this way. Paul gave us the reality, the causes, now with this “therefore” he is giving us the elaboration. This is why these little words are so important: By them, we see that God’s wrath is not revealed because of homosexual acts, but rather it is being revealed by and through homosexual acts (“God gave them up…”; more on that below). So, the first thing we have to point out is that Romans 1 is not simply a list of sins, as many believe, at least in practice. It is the progression of sin, the process of the revelation of the wrath of God—of which homosexual acts is a part—from the denial of God all the way to reprobation. Notice the progression:
- The suppression of the truth about God (vv. 18-20)
- The refusal to honor God as Creator (vv. 21-22)
- The giving over to idolatrous passions (vv. 24-25)
- The corruption of sexuality because of idolatry (vv. 26-27)
- The giving over to reprobation and unrestrained evil (vv. 28-31)
- The approval of those who do likewise (v. 32)
Notice the last clause of vv. 18-23 (v. 23). It says, “[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” This clause is significant for the interpretation of the following material. What is this saying? To what is this verse referring? Where have we heard the phrase “mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”? The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2! This is very important here, because what Paul is saying by this is that it is unnatural for man to worship creatures. What follows is the results of this unnatural relationship. The very next phrase, the first of our current passage (v. 24) is, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” (emphasis mine). In essence, this is saying that God let them have their wish. If they wish to subvert creation by worshiping the creation over the creator, he will merely let the process continue, ultimately reaching full fruition in what follows. So, this passage, unlike those like Leviticus 18, is not a negative condemnation of homosexuality. The advocates of homosexuality are right in that regard, if only partly. The condemnation here is implicit. This passage assumes the sinful nature of homosexuality. Remember, this is God’s judgement. He is not going to punish them with holiness. Rather, he is punishing them by removing his loving restraint on their sin. He is, in essence, leaving them to their own destruction.
As we can see, this is a process that is initiated by the mere denial of God and his Word. Paul is not just mentioning homosexuality in passing, so it really isn’t fair that we address vv. 24-27 alone, because doing so rips the passage out of context which, as I presented above, is quite important for understanding what this passage is doing. Therefore, Paul here did not just decide to mention homosexual acts for no reason. No, he is discussing homosexual acts as it relates to this progression of increasing sin and separation from God. Homosexual acts are a direct result of the denial and refusal to acknowledge God as he is.
It is here that I can address the issue of the terms “nature” and “natural”. There are those that look at this passage and say, “See, Paul here is not talking about homosexual acts per se. What he means by nature is this: these women and men are by nature heterosexual. Therefore, their sin is based on the fact that they went against their natures as heterosexuals and committed homosexual acts.” They then use this argument to say the opposite, that it is therefore only a sin when someone who is by nature homosexual commits heterosexual acts. There are a few major problems with this interpretation:
- It is based on an outright assumption of what Paul means by “natural”. What is assumed by this interpretation is that Paul, by “natural”, means that which an individual feels is natural for them. The problem here is that this ignores the entire biblical narrative. What are men by nature? Paul nowhere here—or anywhere else in his writings—says that human nature is decided upon by the individual. Furthermore, he does not imply that this nature is anything other than that which God created! In fact, he is saying the exact opposite. For Paul, “nature” is defined by how God created human beings, and that is this: God created man, and saw that there was not a helper fit for him, so he created woman, both to be his helper and so that, through their union, fulfill the creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply. That is natural. That is what Paul is saying these men and women here are abandoning. For this reason, the text says “against nature” rather than “unnatural”. This is consistent with what we said Paul has in view here, which is the creation account. Their sin is not against their nature. In fact, their sin is most certainly in accordance with their nature (Ephesians 2:3). Thus, that is not what is in view here. What is in view here is nature as it was created.
- It is ultimately based on an argument from silence. This is a direct result of the first problem. This interpretation assumes that Paul, when he says “men” and “women”, that he is simply talking only about those whose “nature” it is to be heterosexual. The problem is, again, is that this is far, far from the framework from which Paul is working as a Jewish Christian, which is how God created humanity. The creation account defines what is natural, not the individual.
- This text makes no mention of lust per se. Yes, v. 24 makes a mention of lust, but notice what the lust is. It is not lust for lust’s sake (like, say, Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount); it is lust “to impurity”, the desire to “[degrade] their bodies with one another”. Notice, also, that the text does not say the dishonoring of their identity or their sexual orientation. No, it says the dishonoring of their own bodies—their physical bodies. Why is this dishonoring? Again, we go back to v. 23; it is the dishonoring of the created order, the sin from which all of this stems. The creation account is the overarching principle from which Paul is working here.
- Neither this text (nor the rest of the Scriptures) make any mention of a “sexual identity”. All throughout Scripture, man’s identity is described as either being “in God/Christ” or “in sin”. There is never any mention of anything similar to a sexual identity. The only definition of sex and family given in Scripture is the creation account. Every other expression found in Scripture is merely an exposition of that—this passage in Romans 1 included. Anything else is a violation of the created order, as Romans 1 makes abundantly clear.
The bottom line is that this interpretation is based entirely upon assumption. Part of the reason for this redefining of “natural” is the fact that some animals have been seen, supposedly, to possess homosexual tendencies. Now, I am not a scientist, nor do I pretend to be. But, I will say this: Regardless of what is seen in animals or science, we cannot read these things into Scripture. We cannot say, “Well, this is what I see in nature, so Scripture must mean something else or simply be wrong.” That is certainly a form of eisegesis—reading interpretations into Scripture (as opposed to exegesis, which is cultivating the interpretation out of and from Scripture). I will go so far to say that even if the majority of animals exhibited homosexual behavior, it would not in the slightest sense change what Scripture says about homosexuality. Those who make this argument have forgotten that we live in a fallen world. It was not just humanity that was affected by the Fall, but all of creation (Rom. 8:20-21). Again I say, we live in a fallen world; all of nature is affected. We not only have human sin in the world, but also sickness, disease, disaster, and violence. Would it be inappropriate to assume that animals have also been affected? I don’t think so at all. That is why we await with joy not only a new heaven, but a new earth, as well! But, as I said, it wouldn’t matter if the majority (or even all) of the animal kingdom exhibited homosexual behavior, it would not change what Scripture explicitly states. We are not at liberty to hold Scripture subject to creation’s fallen condition. Scripture is God’s very Word, his perfect Word, and must be treated as such. Therefore, what occurs in the world is of no concern to our interpretation, but only what God himself has said in his Word.
What is entirely appropriate is to subject Scripture to itself. Let it be its own interpreter. After all, if we are orthodox, evangelical Christians, we know the Bible teaches that all of Scripture is God’s Word breathed out, that God inspired the writing of Scripture in a way that, being like Christ both fully human and fully divine, the writings are free from error, and are expressed in their entirety without falsehood or contradiction because, being totally breathed out by God, it has only one ultimate Author. This Author cannot lie or contradict himself. Therefore, what he says in one part of Scripture, whether the Old or New Testament, will in no way be contrary to something said in any other part of Scripture, whether in the Old or New Testament. Of course, if we are not orthodox and do not believe these most basic Christian truths, then nothing in this discussion will convince us at all, because we have permitted ourselves to pick and choose what to believe because, after all, not all of Scripture is God-breathed to us. That is fine, I suppose, as long as we admit up front that this is our hermeneutic—that we subject Scripture ultimately to our subjective feelings and observations. However—and I say this with all love and sincerity—if this is the case, our study of Scripture cannot be faithfully described as scriptural, biblical, or Christian; it is utterly opposed to the way the Prophets, the Apostles, and Jesus himself viewed Scripture (which he wrote, because he is fully God).
That being said, we have to interpret Scripture by Scripture. Now, say we grant that the interpretation of Romans 1:24-27 being addressed here is in fact a possible interpretation of that text by itself. We, being orthodox, evangelical Christians, should immediately say, “Wait, this interpretation seems to directly contradict teaching elsewhere in Scripture, especially Leviticus 18 and 20, and 1 Corinthians 6 (which Paul also wrote!). Therefore, we have to either throw out our interpretation of Romans 1, or our interpretation of all the other passages. They cannot coexist. In the end, we must go with the former, because Leviticus 18 and 20, and 1 Corinthians 6 (and the creation account, if we are truly serious about this) are insurmountably clear in their teaching. Therefore, we interpret Romans 1 in light of passages through Scripture. We interpret Scripture by Scripture, not our experience or opinions.
Now, I will try to end this on a pastoral note. I want to say that I am not posting this to attack anyone or out of malice. I simply want us, all of us, to be truthful with Scripture. At the same time, I want those who still claim to use Scripture to support so-called gay marriage, to cease from doing so. If people want to support so-called gay marriage, that is fine. They are at liberty to do so. However, they cannot truthfully say that they are being scriptural. One cannot say that he believes the Bible and be at the same time in disagreement with it. That being said, I do not deny at all that there are many who possess homosexual desires—and quite legitimate ones. I know Scripture teaches that homosexual acts are sinful, but I also know that homosexual desires are not impossible. The fact is, we live in a fallen world, and we are all subject to a sinful nature. We all desire to rebel against God and by nature hate God. This sinful nature expresses itself in various ways. Some people desire to steal, others to kill, yet others to physically abuse, still others the desire to homosexual acts. This is just a fact if you are human. Yet, it is not the desire to sin that is sinful, it is the acting upon that desire. Christ calls us to, by repenting, deny ourselves those desires, to forsake, and to seek after the things of God, namely holiness, by the power of the Spirit of God. Contrary to what many homosexuality advocates teach, this is something every person who converts to Christianity has to go through. They all must deny something that they feel they are by nature, and follow Christ. This is the meaning of the phrase “deny yourself”.
Allow me to offer an anecdote to help. I tell this personal story with hesitation because, outside of my wife and a few close friends, I have never disclosed this part of my life, but I believe it is so relevant to the issue at hand. Before I was a Christian, I was heavily addicted to pornography. This addiction started in high school and continued on in to college, with increasing severity. At one point, I engaged in watching pornography multiple times a day. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I couldn’t stop. I was merely acting according to my fallen nature. Indeed, as an unbeliever, it was part of who I was. I was unregenerate and unbelieving. It was part of my innermost being to do this and to enjoy it. This addiction absolutely destroyed a relationship with a girl with whom I was in a relationship for 4.5 years and almost destroyed my relationship with the woman who is now my wife. Now, one day, after I had nearly lost my second relationship, I decided to simply give up, to let go of my sin and let God have his way with me. I denied part of who I was and followed Christ. Since then, I still have desires to watch pornography, but, by the power of God’s Spirit, I no longer have to. Christ has shown me that this addiction, this insatiable (and it was insatiable) desire, although I indeed thought it was a part of my identity, was in fact not a part of who I am supposed to be. He showed me that my identity is in Christ, not in my sinful nature and desires.
Now, how does this relate to homosexuality? I know several people who are Christians yet experience homosexual desires. Yet, they have chosen to deny themselves that part of their life, because they know that their true identity is in Christ. They acknowledge their sinful desires, yet they know a better way, and choose that way. Here is the point, we are all called by Christ to deny ourselves and follow him. This is not a demand that is exclusive to homosexuals. I had to do it, and I am called to continue to do it every day. But now, the love of and unity with Christ has proven to be the fulfillment of my identity as God’s image-bearer. Contrary to my fears when I was an unbeliever, I am much happier now having rejected my sinful desires. That is the beauty of Christ: he promises us life by telling us to gives ours up. Those who lose their life will find it (Matt. 16:25).
I hope the above material has helped clarify where Scripture stands on the issue. To those who are practicing homosexuals, I love you enough to tell you that God is not pleased with your lifestyle and that Scripture is universally and manifestly against you. I know it is not popular for people to say that these days. It is labelled as hate and bigotry. However, if I refused to warn you of oncoming punishment, I would not be loving you. Christ, throughout the Scriptures, demands that you forsake your sin and follow him. That includes denying your desire for sexual relations with the same sex any satisfaction, because it would only be temporary. Here is the best part: I can promise you that, upon giving it up, you will find Christ to be the perfect Savior and sufficient source for all joy. In him, you will find true life. It does come not without cost; you will need to give up what you think is part of who you are, but that is what Christ calls you to do. It is what he calls us all to. The reward far outweighs the cost.
- Here and throughout this article, unless it is otherwise indicated, when I refer to “homosexuality”, I am referring not to homosexual tendencies or desires, but both the self-identification as homosexual and the willful act of homosexual intercourse, both as individual acts and as a lifestyle. As I will say at the end of this article, I do not in any way deny that homosexual desires are a real and difficult thing (that, yes, even Christians struggle with) and are a direct result of our fallen nature.
- Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Below is a list of resources that I have used to help compile this presentation. I suggest giving these a good read-through or listen if you wish to hear more from an orthodox evangelical and biblical perspective regarding these issues.
- James White, “Gay Christianity Refuted”—This audio is very long (about five hours), but in it Dr. White thoroughly responds to a big proponent of the interpretations of Romans 1 which I have addressed here. It is well worth everyone’s time.
- James White, “The Witness of Romans 1 Part 1” and “Romans 1 Part 2”
- John and Paul Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World, pp. 307-385
- For a prime example of the view I am addressing, see this article. Notice the complete lack of exegesis and, in its stead, the use of ad hominem, irrelevant history (notice that I did not say history is irrelevant, but the history mentioned in this article, specifically regarding the author’s painfully pitiful explanation of Romans 1:26-27, is almost totally irrelevant), psychology, and a whole host of other things—except exegesis.