Doin' What Comes..."Naturally?"
Text: Romans 1:26-27
Traditional viewpoint: Homosexuality is contrary (i.e., “unnatural”) to the way God created man and woman. It is even viewed by some as an indication that God has abandoned those who practice such behaviors. (i.e., v.26 “God gave them up” in the KJV) Many particularly like this passage because, in their opinion, it addresses the issues of lesbians, which is conspicuously absent in other sections, particularly the “abomination” texts.
In recent times, these verses have even been cited as evidence that AIDS was God’s judgment on gays. (v.27 “received in themselves the due penalty for their error” in the NIV), which is seen as proof of God’s disposition toward homosexuals.
If we look at these two verses, they appear to be clear and (pardon the pun) straightforward. Paul writes to the Roman church that he’s heard of women having sex with women and men having sex with men. He informs them it’s not “natural” and details God’s disapproval of such “dishonorable” actions.
So there you have it, plain and simple. Case closed, we can all go home. (As long as we go home with an opposite-sex partner.)
The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t follow the “natural” methodology of traditional Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), which leads to an “unnatural” conclusion and a “dishonorable” application.
Consider the following aspects which would call this interpretation into question:
1. In verse 16, the sentence begins with the word “therefore” (in other translations, “For this reason”), which lets us know that what’s being presented in this verse is the summation of previous thoughts. (That's known as context.) Paul is obviously drawing a conclusion (that’s the idea of “therefore”), so we must go back in the text to get an accurate perspective, known as context in hermeneutics.
Clarification: Hermeneutics is the study of the general principles of biblical interpretation. These are guidelines that are used to discover the truths and applications of the Bible. While there may be variations, it traditionally involves such elements as intent of the writer, context of the passage (e.g., the entire book), audience and their culture, etc.
The key to this interpretation centers on the words “natural” and “unnatural” without a proper etymology (word meaning), foundation of the entire chapter, the rest of the book or other usage in Scripture. Too often, the concept of “normal” and “abnormal” (or “right” and “wrong”) are superimposed over the meaning of “natural” and “unnatural,” becoming the basis of understanding and application.
The word “natural” in the original Greek can refer to that which is customary or expected. When used of a person, it could connote their “natural” disposition, or what comes naturally to them. In other words, it’s instinctual.
EXAMPLES: We learn the Gentiles acted “naturally” by living according to the law, even though they didn’t have the law. (cf: 2:14) It is seen as instinct, inherent. (The NSAB actually translates it as “instinctively.”) In Galatians 2:15, Paul uses the word to refer to those who were born Jews, rather than those who converted. In other words, it’s inherent—part of who they are. In 1 Corinthians 11:14, we are told it is “natural” (expected) for a man to have short hair; this is clearly not a moral issue, and having long hair is certainly not a "sin," just not what's expected or customary.
As for “unnatural,” the Greek word could probably be translated “unexpected,” as in something not done in the usual or expected way. It can mean “unusual” or “outside of the customary.” It does not have to mean something that’s bad, in a moral sense.
EXAMPLE: God offered salvation to the Gentiles and even brought them into the fold. Paul says that was “unnatural.” (cf: 11:21-24) Definitely not assigning an immoral attribute to God; the connotation signifies it was an "unexpected" action.
Author’s Side Note: Some within the LGBT community have suggested that this may refer to heterosexual people who engage in homosexual acts. The condemnation being to those who go against their nature. In other words, a straight man who chooses to have sex with another man is acting “unnaturally.” A heterosexual woman engaging in sex with a woman is “unnatural.” Likewise, a homosexual who has sex with someone of the opposite sex is going against what is “natural.”
It is a plausible application, but probably not a valid interpretation. Personally, I don’t think the Apostle Paul had in mind the complex concept of sexual orientation at all. That would not have been part of the understanding of that day, and Paul would not have been able to make a distinction between the choice of sexual behavior (what I do) and the innate attraction of sexual orientation (who I am). Sadly, the same is too true today with many schooled in an outdated paradigm of sexuality. They still see homosexuality as a choice and behavior only, so this passage fits well into their preconceptions and proof-texts their dogma.
3. Worship is the primary theme and the context is a warning against idolatry. (cf: 1:21) This is in keeping what we saw in the Old Testament (Leviticus' “abomination” passage) and would point to the fact that Paul was addressing similar problems—cultic, temple practices involving sexual activities, temple prostitution and sexual sacrifices.
Many of the Gentiles in the Roman Church at that time would have been active participants in this pagan cultic worship before their conversion. It could be that Paul was merely giving a cultural “snapshot” of what was taking place in that particular place at that particular place.
Some think they were seeking to incorporate the practices into their new-found Christian faith. Or perhaps they were attempting to maintain worship in both their Christian faith and their former pagan practices. In other words, maybe Paul is condemning as “unnatural” the practice of having sex as part of frenzied, out-of-control worship for the Christian. As a Jewish man, coming from his strict Hebrew training, he would hold cultural gender roles and would see this kind of practice as “unexpected.”
4. The sequence of events—the downward moral spiral described in verses 18 through 25—point to personal choices more than sexual nature. The people being discussed here made a conscious decision to abandon God and follow their own desires/lusts. (cf: v.16) In other words, we can, by choice, divert our attention away from God to that which God created rather than the Creator. That’s idolatry! It’s “unnatural” to worship the creature rather than the Creator.
Clarification: Therefore, it’s very difficult…not to mention unfair…to universally apply these passages to sincere gay and lesbian Christians who are actively seeking to know God in a personal way.
5. Paul is not talking about mere sexual desires. It’s not about attraction or even passion. It’s certainly not about love. This is about conscious lust (cf: v.24, 25)…out of control and with a total disregard of what impact it has on one’s self or others. Those being portrayed here are hedonists, in the truest sense of the word. Their lives, through a series of choices, are ruled by lust.
Clearly the lesson is that lust without restrains only leads to more lust. With our passion (desires) out of control, lust becomes predominate. Lust controls, then needs more and more to satisfy. We become capable of all forms of “unnatural” activities.
This kind of lust-out-of-control “lifestyle” can lead to an inability to discern right from wrong. All moral/ethical choices become relative to the needs and desires (cravings) of the moment, and determined solely by the person making the choices without regard to consequences. The person has become “god” of their own life! That is “unnatural.”
6. From the context, it’s appears not just that men were having sex with men and women having sex with women. It implies there were many men and many women, all having sex. In other words, it’s essentially what would be called an orgy. Again, this would be in keeping with the worship practices of local pagan religions, and it’s feasible that Paul is condemning this “unnatural” practice of group sex.
7. The terminology used (cf: v.26 “exchanged” // v.27 “abandoned”) point to the idea of sexual choices, not sexual orientation as we understand it today. The people being discussed made a choice to engage in same-sex activities. It’s not about inherent sexual attraction.
8. If we take the passage literally as many suggest, then the practice of attempting to “cure” or “heal” (or even convert) gay people would be fruitless, since they have been abandoned by God and given over to their lusts. (cf: v. 28) In other words, if we want to be literal, it is Biblically “unnatural” to attempt changing a person’s orientation!
9. This interpretation has always elevated the “sin” of homosexuality to a greater significance than any other transgression, practices, attitudes and behaviors that are also given (cf: v.28-32) as evidence of God’s judgment. In the context of this chapter, other “sins” are also evidence of this downward moral spiral. (e.g., greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slanderer, arrogance, disobedience to parents, unloving, unmerciful)
Author’s Observation: By the way, some of those very traits are evident in many of the Christians who work so diligently and speak so harshly in their opposition to gays and lesbians. We see deceit in presenting facts about gays and lesbians, malice of intent in excluding gays and lesbians, arrogance about the Truth with an “us” versus “them” mentality, unloving and unmerciful in both attitude and approach. It’s similar to the situation being address by Paul: the Jews were suspicious of the reality (or possibility) of a Gentile’s faith in Christ. (“Those kind of people can’t share our faith!”) So after Paul listed all these negative vices, he called for personal self examination, while warning against judgment and elevating one sin—or sinner—above another. (cf: Romans 2)
While the Bible definitely presents life-changing Truth, it is not a textbook on psychology nor a guidebook on sexuality. The writers of Scripture wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the language of their times, with the understanding of their times. We do an injustice when we try to superimpose modern concepts on the limited understanding of ancient times and vastly different cultures. (This would also include other modern concepts. We don’t beat our children with rods to force obedience and we don’t stone them to death when they refuse to obey. We don’t see women as the property of her father or husband. We don’t practice slavery.)
No one can give a definite picture of what acts are being addressed by Paul, nor the ones committing the acts. I don’t claim to have the authoritative, absolute explanation; it’s my hope is that these alternatives will show that it’s not as black-and-white as many make it sound.
Clearly, this chapter teaches us the impact of turning one’s back on God and living with lust out of control cannot be ignored. However, it would be difficult to universally force this application to those homosexual Christians who are seeking a ongoing, personal and meaningful relationship with God, through Christ. Such a dogmatic position is unwarranted, outside the realm of Biblical scholarship and smacks of bigotry.
Even if (and I don’t believe this) we were dealing with a condemnation of same-sex activity (different from sexual orientation), in order to stay with the context, we must also look at the verses that follow. The clear truth of Romans 2 is that judging a person (a gay person) make us just as guilty!