Monday, June 25, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 6: Romans 1:24-27

When the execrable Lady Gaga sang, in her club anthem, "Born This Way," that "God makes no mistakes," she was speaking unadulterated biblical truth.  Of course, she should have, as it were, quit while she was ahead.  But, alas, she ran into trouble, theologically speaking, with the deduction she inferred from this premise: because God makes no mistakes, people are "beautiful in (their own) way" and ought to "rejoice" and "love (themselves)"; they are thus "on the right track" if they live accordingly because they were "born this way."  Not surprisingly, she applied this dictum to an issue of major contemporary concern:
No matter gay, straight, or bi,
Lesbian, transgendered life
I'm on the right track baby
Indeed, no argument in favor of normalizing homosexual behavior — no one today imagines "orientation" could ever fail to be acted upon — has achieved greater currency in the modern/postmodern/post-postmodern (take your pick) West than the argument from nature.  Because people are "born gay," it is simply assumed without argument that they should have the same right to act on their inclinations as the majority heterosexual population.  Failure to acknowledge this "right" is, in the eyes of many GLBT advocates, the height of both arrogance and bigotry. 

I am not a scientist; I am a lowly biblical scholar and working stiff.  Nevertheless, as I have often averred, I consider it probable that there is in fact a biological component to homosexual "orientation."  But as a theologian and logician I can also say that the straightforward leap from "is" to "ought," common though it may be, is as fallacious as it is precipitant.  Moreover, as a Pauline scholar I can also state without hesitation that the Apostle to the Gentiles was aware of, and utilized, a very different "argument from nature"  from that which most Westerners commonly use today.  He does this in the passage which has become something of the locus classicus on the issue of the New Testament's view of homoerotic practice, viz., Romans 1:24-27:
Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (NET Bible)
A little context:  in verses 16-17 Paul has just articulated his programmatic affirmation of the "gospel" — delineated Christologically in Romans 1:2-4 in terms of Jesus' Messianic career and exaltation to universal Lordship as a consequence of the resurrection — as the vehicle of God's saving "righteousness" for both Jews and Gentiles in faithfulness to God's inscripturated covenant promises (see my full discussion of these verses, with their manifold difficulties, here).  The apostle will pick up and develop the idea of God's revelation of his "righteousness" in the Christ event in 3:21.  In the meantime, in Romans 1:18-3:20, he sketches the dark backdrop that serves as the necessary presupposition for the positive exposition of that righteousness in 3:21-4:25.  He begins thus (Romans 1:18-23):
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (NET Bible)

God's "wrath" (orgē) is his active, personal indignation against everything that contradicts, and everyone who flouts, his holiness.  In the present context — note both Paul's use of the explanatory gar and repetition of the verb apokalyptetai, "is being revealed" in verse 18 — it is evident that God's "righteousness" (dikaiosynē) and his "wrath" (orgē) are mutually dependent.  "Wrath," at least in this context, is the dark obverse of "righteousness."  God's saving activity, Paul is saying, can only be rightly interpreted in the context of his retributive judgment against "unrighteous" people (note the dual reference to human "unrighteousness" [adikia] in verse 18, which makes the intended contrast obvious, and hence such translations as the NIV's "wickedness" less than optimal).

Paul's argument in Romans 1:18-32, in which he draws heavily from the type of theological polemic found in the Wisdom of Solomon 12-15, is straightforward and, hence, easy to follow.  His unspecified target, as all commentators (save for Jouette Bassler) agree, is the Gentile world.  His primary thesis is clearly stated in verses 18-19:  God is even now revealing his (eschatological) wrath against the godless unrighteousness of people who wickedly suppress the truth he revealed about himself.  The remainder of the paragraph unpacks this dense statement.

Paul first articulates the human "unrighteousness" that precipitated God's "wrathful" response in verses 20-23.  The theological implications of these verses are massive.  At the most basic level the important point Paul has to make is that human "wickedness" is the result of primal human rebellion rather than ignorance.  He is certainly not arguing from empiricism or at the individual level at this point.  To that extent Richard Hays is right in saying that Paul is "thinking in mythico-historical categories" here (The Moral Vision of the New Testament [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996] 385).  Ernst Käsemann expresses the idea more clearly: "For the apostle, history is governed by the primal sin of rebellion against the Creator, which finds repeated and universal expression" (Commentary on Romans [trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980] 47).  Humankind are guilty and "without excuse" (anapologētous), in Paul's view, because they have persistently suppressed and rejected the knowledge of God they could have clearly perceived from the creation itself (for a lucid discussion of the "natural theology" articulated by the apostle here, cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans [AB 33; New York: Doubleday, 1993] 269-74, 279-81).  Even worse, they filled the vacuum caused by their rejection of God by "exchanging" (metēllaxan) the worship of God for the idolatrous worship of corruptible creatures.

Paul's logic in these verses is impeccable:
A. God has clearly revealed himself.
B. People ignored and rejected that revelation. Therefore:
C. People are deserving of wrath.
Even more important is the recognition that for Paul individual human "sins" — and the apostle enumerates more in verses 24-32 than anywhere else in his writings — are not portrayed as the cause of humankind's disjointed relationship with God. Indeed, it is the other way around. Paul profoundly gets to the heart of the problem by identifying the primal human sin(s) of unbelief and idolatry. As a result, God's "wrath" takes an unexpected, ironic form here in Romans. To quote the great Käsemann once again, "Paul paradoxically reverses the cause and the consequence: moral perversion is the result of God's wrath, not the reason for it" (47). God, so Paul argues, hands the sinner over to the consequences of his or her action by letting rebellion run its own disastrous course.

Paul elaborates this "wrathful," punitive divine response in verses 24-32 as a three-fold "Law of Retribution." God responds to humankind's three-fold "exchange" of his created design with a three-fold "abandonment" that delineates how God's "wrath" finds its expression today in anticipation of its ultimate exercise:

1.God abandoned them to sensual idolatry (1:24-25).
2.God abandoned them to sexual perversion (1:26-27).
3.God abandoned them to a depraved mind so that they would practice and approve every sort of sin (1:28-32).
The relevant section, of course, is the discussion in verses 26-27, the second of the three divine "abandonments."  On the face of it, this is a clear expression of a biblical author's condemnation of homosexual practice.  Indeed, one might with justification view this as a specific example of the general principle found in verses 24-25, where God "handed them over" (paredōken), as a judge might a felon to a bailiff for punishment, to "the lusts of their hearts," to (sexual) "impurity" (akatharsia), "so that their bodies might be dishonored (atimazesthai) among themselves."  This connection is made clear by Paul in verse 26, where the "exchange" (metēllaxan) of the "females" (thēleiai) of the "natural (sexual) function" (tēn physikēn chrēsin) for that which is "against nature" (para physin) is illustrative of the "dishonorable passions" (pathē atimias) to which God handed the Gentiles over and which correspondingly dishonored the participants' bodies.  And so every scholar and churchman believed until quite recently.

Not surprisingly, however, such a conclusion has been sharply contested in recent decades, mostly (though not exclusively) by defenders of homosexual practice.  Peter Tomson, for example, suggested that the female intercourse described as "against nature" was, in reality, "'unnatural' intercourse chrēsis para physin of women with men" (Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakha in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles [CRINT 3.1; Assen: Van Gorcum/Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990] 94 n. 157).  The Achilles' heel of such a suggestion is Paul's use of the conjunction homoiōs ("likewise") with which, in verse 27, he introduces the structurally parallel abandonment by "males" (arsenes) of the "natural function of the females" (tēn physikēn chrēsin tēs thēleias) in favor of performing "shameless" (aschēmosynē) acts with "males" to which their "inflamed" (exekauthēsan) "lusts" (orexei) had driven them.  On the face of it, the text is dealing with, and evaluating negatively, what we today refer to as lesbian behavior.

No more successful is the famous attempt by John Boswell to claim that Paul had in view "unnatural" homosexual acts committed by people with heterosexual orientations (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980] 107-14).  The two key terms are the verb "exchanged" (metēllaxan) and the noun "nature" (physis).  Boswell suggests that the text refers to the individual decision of some individuals to engage in homosexual sexual intercourse against their native inclinations (or "alongside, in addition to" [para] their basic heterosexual "nature").  But this argument falls apart on only a moment's reflection.  On analogy with the Gentiles' previous "exchange" (ēllaxan/metēllaxen) of the glory and worship of God for the worship of idols (1:23, 25), the "exchange" referred to in verses 26-27 must be a change operative at the most foundational of levels.  Moreover, is it really plausible to argue that the "nature" involved is limited to the "nature" of the orientation and inclinations of specific individuals, so that what Paul found reprehensible was their promiscuous failure to be true to themselves?

The definitive refutation of Boswell's revisionism, no matter how popular in some circles, is found in Paul's conspicuous use, in verses 26-27, of the terms thēleia and arsenes ("females and males") rather than the more common gynai and andres ("women and men").   For these terms are the very ones used in Genesis 1:26-27 to refer to God's creation of human beings as "male and female."   Herein lies the key to understanding both the nature of the sinful "exchange" and what Paul meant by the term "nature" (physis).  The term physis had a long and distinguished use in Greek, not least Stoic philosophy, from which it found its way into Hellenistic Jewish literature, including the Wisdom of Solomon 13:1, a verse with remarkable affinities to Paul's text in Romans 1:18-32.  For the Stoics, "nature" is reflective of the rational order of things according to which a person must strive to live.  Paul, for all the apparent similarities of conception, invests the notion of "nature" with the biblical, Jewish perspective on creation as found in Genesis 1 (cf. Rom 1:20, 25).  According to Paul's perspective, sexual differentiation and complementarity were written into God's creative design every bit as much as the differentiation between Creator and creature.  Accordingly, homoerotic behavior is a fundamental deviation (planē, "error," 1:27) from the nature of how things ought to be by God's creative design.  Paul, as one who did not operate with modern psychological notions of sexual "orientation," but who did wrestle often and profoundly with the devastatingly complex problems associated with universal sinfulness, would have been singularly unimpressed by claims to "natural" homosexuality, as if such would mitigate the sinfulness of such behavior.  After all, in his view all — Jews and Gentiles alike — are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).

One final attempt to circumvent Paul's sweeping rejection of homosexual behavior is provided by Robin Scroggs who, as he did with reference to 1 Corinthians 6:9, restricts Paul's focus to the specific matter of pederasty (The New Testament and Homosexuality [Philadelphia; Fortress, 1983] 115).  No doubt Paul was aware of the prevalence of pederasty in Greek culture, but the context here allows for no such restriction.  In particular, the irrefutable reference to lesbian activity in verse 26 provides the parallel with the male homosexual practice of verse 27.  To restrict the latter to what is, by Western standards, a particularly unacceptable form of homosexual conduct is the worst sort of special pleading born of a hermeneutics of wishful thinking.

We must conclude that Paul's opposition to homosexual practice could not be more clear.  More must be said, however.  As I have often said, it is quite natural, and existentially painless, to denounce sins for which one has little or no inclination.  And so it has often been with regard to homosexual activity.  But we must ask the question: Did Paul view homosexual behavior to be a particularly egregious form of sin?

The first indication of how Paul would have answered this question comes in verses 28-32, where the apostle provides the third cycle of his "law of retribution":

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them. (NET Bible)
This is the longest of Paul's twelve vice lists recorded in his various letters.  As is immediately apparent, the apostle shifts his focus from sensual to antisocial sins.  But there is no hint that these sins are any less serious than the  sexual perversions described earlier.  Indeed, not only the heartless, ruthless, and murderers, but gossips, boasters, and children disobedient to parents (!) are all lumped together as those whose sins merit death according to God's righteous decree.  All sin, as Calvin said, is equally damning, and equally inexcusable. 

Why then did Paul focus on homosexuality in this passage?  I would suggest that he did so because, of all sins, homoeroticism most clearly illustrates the disruption of the natural order that occurs as a consequence of human rebellion against the creator.  Hays trenchantly comments:
[I]n Romans 1 Paul portrays homosexual behavior as a "sacrament" (so to speak) of the antireligion of human beings who refuse to honor God the Creator.  When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator's design.  Thus, Paul's choice of homosexuality as an illustration of human depravity is not merely random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid image of humanity's primal rejection of the sovereignty of God the Creator. (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 386)
More important, however, is to understand Romans 1:18-32 in the context of Paul's larger argument in 1:18-3:20.  I have alluded more than once to the remarkable similarity in tone and content between this paragraph and such Hellenistic Jewish polemical works as the Wisdom of Solomon, particularly chapter 12-14.  That text indeed excoriates the Gentile world for its rampant idolatry based on a primal rejection of the knowledge they had of God from creation, which resulted in "ungodliness," fornication, and "sexual perversion."  Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that what Paul is doing is using standard Jewish polemic against the Gentiles (which, of course, he agreed with) as a means to accomplish his real objective

Notice how the author of the Wisdom of Solomon continues after his devastating rebuke of the Gentiles:
But you, our God, are kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are yours, knowing your power ... (Wisd.Sol. 15:1-2)
Criticism of the Gentiles here is certainly not wed to a corresponding humility and acknowledgement of the Jews' own sinful unfaithfulness to God.  Indeed, what is clear is a presumption of moral superiority and favored status based upon the nation's covenant relationship with God.

Contrast this with Paul, who continues in Romans 2:1:
Therefore you are without excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
Paul has in a very real sense performed a masterful hermeneutical sting operation.  By reflecting standard Jewish condemnation of the Gentile world, he has effectively set up his real target, the Jew naively confident in both his moral superiority over the Gentiles and the efficacy of his covenant status.  Just at the point when his reader would rise to say "Amen" to Paul's litany, he turns the tables and declares that the self-righteous and/or nationalistic Jew was "without excuse" (anapologētos) in the same way as the despised Gentiles were (2:1; cf. 1:20).  This is the opening salvo in the apostle's contention that the Jews, no less than the Gentiles, were "under sin" and in need of God's saving righteousness manifested in Jesus Christ.

It is entirely appropriate to agree with the judgment of Paul that homosexual behavior is a perversion of God's creational intent for human sexuality.  All too often in my experience, however, such an affirmation or proclamation is not married to a humble acknowledgement of one's own moral inadequacy and consequent debt to the mercy and grace of God.  It is indeed tempting to be smug when the focus is drawn away from the areas of one's own moral failings.  But, for Paul, hypocritical, judgmental self-righteousness is every bit as serious a matter as the homosexual behavior he presents as "exhibit A" for humankind's rebellion against God and his creative designs.  All of us — Jew and Gentile, English and Ethiopian, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual — play on a level playing field, and all of us, apart from Christ, stand equally condemned, on merit, in the dock before God who judges justly and impartially.  Let none of us who claim the name of Christ ever forget that or, even worse, pretend it isn't true.


  1. Great article! There's two areas I'd like to see you spend more time on:
    1. Verse 24 says "desires of their hearts." This goes along with the idea that people may in fact be born homosexual. But the implication here and throughout the bible is that desires of the heart are not always morally correct or "natural." How is it that a desire of the heart can be unnatural? How would you respond to someone who says, "Do whatever your heart desires," and that is his/her entire approach to morality?
    2. You mention a three tiered descent into sin: idolatry, homosexuality, and finally anti-social sin. Many people today feel that only anti-social sin is in fact "wrong." I'd like to hear you talk more about the significance of the progression. How do you respond to the statement, "If it doesn't hurt someone it's not wrong"?

    1. The heart in biblical psychology refers to then center of one's being. Thus it embraces the will and mind as well as the emotions. But you are right. Paul here does say that these people (pagan Gentiles)"craved" or "desired" (sexual) impurity. People don't. of course, normally lust after things they don't like, though I suppose they could sooner or later lust after "acquired tastes." The point I think is significant is that Paul sees such depraved desires as the consequence of God's judicial "handing them over" to sin and its consequences. You are likewise correct to note that the Bible doesn't present the desires of the heart as neutral, let alone righteous. According to Paul, people are born into a state and condition of slavery to sin (Rom 6, etc.) and hence their natural desires will be conditioned by their depraved nature. He doesn't spell out exactly how this happened, though he does give a hint in Romans 5 when he claims that the one sinful, disobedient act of Adam "constituted" all sinners (i.e., they were placed in the judicial category of "sinners," anf hence guilty before God). Hence we can only say that we should follow our heart's desire if we are confident our desires are in tune with the standards God has revealed for conduct in the Bible.
      As to the second matter, I have likewise heard people say that. Paul, following Jesus, sums up the law in terms of love (Rom 13; Gal 5). But we must remember that our religious "duty" is the dual love command articulated by Jesus: love God entirely (Deut 6) and you neighbor as yourself (Lev 19). The latter is easier to explain in that Jesus summarizes it in the "golden rule" (actually doing it is a different matter). But it is the first that explains many things the other can't. Thus we must honor God, worship him, and live as he has commanded, in thye knowledge that he has so commanded these things for ultimate human flourishing in creation as he has designed it.