I recently received a comment from a reader (Rob) regarding my treatment of Romans 1 in the post “For the Love of God: An Open Letter to Kevin DeYoung”. As I set out to answer the question I realized the care and consideration required to answer this question, given the delicacy of the topic, warranted more than is typically decorous for a comment thread. As such, I asked Rob’s permission to reproduce his comment as a prompt for this post. The comment below represents Rob’s thoughts:
I believe that you have misrepresented Romans 1:26-27 because from Romans 1:18 Paul intentionally shows the ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness of mankind’ that is found in common societal practices that the Romans could relate to. Idolatry and homosexuality were familiar occurrences in Roman society and not some extreme reality. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Rome (be warned that this Wiki page has explicit explanations that could be very unpleasant for sensitive readers).
That same sex sexual practice occurred outside of the marriage bed is true, but that should not have us evade the fact that the word of God points specifically to the sin of lusting after the same sex ‘where men … gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error’.
Also, even if homosexuality was related to idolatry, which evidently wasn’t the case, God’s word clearly views same-sex sexuality as son (sic) in Romans 1:26-27 regardless of motive.
Before I reply, I want to thank Rob for this comment and for allowing me to use it in this post. I think he raises some excellent questions that, I hope, will facilitate a more thorough treatment of Romans 1 than was previously provided.
Romans 1:26-27 is one of the infamous “six passages” typically used to condemn same-sex sexuality. While I have previously addressed these verses, I have never endeavored to treat the passage in a stand-alone setting. Thus, it seems to me, there is something to be gained by further exploration of this passage.
Before I begin, it seems important to lay some ground work. First, it is important to know what the passage itself; here is the NRSV rendering:
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 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.
It is often tempting, especially when we feel so much is a stake, to try to reduce Scripture down to propositional statements – to leave a passage like this to itself and assert it as an absolute and inviolable truth. In fact, like me in my youth, many people are trained to read Scripture in such a fashion. Much of evangelical culture is built on the ability of persons to one-off decontextualized Bible verses like they were written as independent thoughts. However, I believe this is a dangerous precedent, one used too often as a method of confirmation bias.
I want to be abundantly clear, my target is not bias in and of itself. The reality is, as humans, we are naturally subjective beings. Every time we engage in any language exercise we are, by the nature of the task, engaging in acts of interpretation and meaning making. We cannot, ever, truly arrive at an objective assertion of absolute meaning. This is why discourse, dialogue, and well-reasoned arguments are so important. We must be aware that we are bringing bias(es) to the text and refuse to engage said text in such a way that we leave our own bias unexamined. Instead, as Christians, we must be careful to take every argument captive and allow it to be thoroughly examined in the crucible of the cross (2 Cor 10).
As Moltmann once said:
The cross signifies that in Jesus which makes him the object of preaching and every subsequent theological interpretation, an object which is in contrast to them, and with which hearer and interpreter are brought face to face. The crucified Christ therefore remains the inner criterion of all preaching which appeals to him. So far as it points to him, it is tested by him; so far as it reveals him, it is authorized by him.
As such, I believe it important to consider more than simply how a passage functions independently as a decontextualized “proof-text” or “clobber passage”. Instead, we must recognize that the author of the text took time to form a careful and nuanced argument. Attempting to artificially sever a phrase from that argument, with no consideration for larger purpose, is a violence to the text of Scripture itself.
There are a number of reasons a carefully considered approach is preferable. I have previously laid out my critical hermeneutic here (link), but will offer a brief recap for the purposes of this post.
- It is important for one’s hermeneutic to be logically and rhetorically consistent. We cannot take a careful and nuanced approach with one passage, yet reduce another to a handy back pocket trump card. We must be careful to recognize the biases we bring to the text and be committed to respecting the entire argument being made, not only the parts of the passage convenient for what we want to say.
- One’s hermeneutic must also be biblically sound. It is not enough to take passages out of context and make a piece meal argument to fit our own agenda. Instead, we must recognize that it is easy to manipulate and influence the biblical text in our own image. It is considerably more difficult – and rewarding – to admit our bias and allow the collective witness of Scripture, appropriated by the Holy Spirit, to speak into our lives and dismantle our preconceptions as he sees fit.
- Every hermeneutic must be in pursuit of Christ-likeness. Again it is not difficult to manipulate Scripture to form a coherent, but nevertheless abusive, interpretative framework. For instance, a person reading Exodus 21, Ephesians 5-6, and 1 Peter 2-3 together could easily argue that Christians can own slaves. They could even argue that these slaves are, in fact, rightfully viewed as property and that we may beat them for their wrongdoings as long as we also recognize and reward them fairly when they do right.
But this does not make this a Christ-like argument. Our hermeneutic must always factor the crucified Christ, who alone reveals to us the character and will of God (John 1:1-18, John 14; 1 Cor 1-2). In doing this, it is important not simply to take a flat or literalistic approach to a passage, but to explore the socio-historical and literary context as a means to determine if and where nuance may lie within the biblical text.
Thus, to take the example of biblical slavery above, I would point out it is important to consider the linguistic subtleties used by both Paul and Peter to critique the patriarchal social order of ancient Roman society and how that ought to affect our understanding of slavery. Likewise, I would point out an OT passage like Jeremiah 34 which suggests Yahweh was more critical of Jewish slavery practices than the Exodus narrative by itself might suggest.
With these things in mind, I will present a treatment of Romans 1:26-27 that attempts to remain mindful of these categories. I leave it to the reader to determine the effectiveness of my presentation.
As stated above, it is simply not enough to quote a handful of verses from Scripture and claim to have grasped the “clear” view of Scripture of any topic. In fact, in my opinion such a hermeneutic is woefully reductive and painfully myopic; it seems impossible to ever determine what Scripture means if the interpretive onus lies in the individual’s ability to assess a clear meaning.
In examining the context of Romans 1, I assert it is imperative to remember that no passage exists in isolation. Instead, it is intended as part of an intricate argument – a comprehensive theological argument interacting both with the audience’s presuppositions and the text of Scripture itself.
As such, my method here shall be to explore how the passage in question, Romans 1:26-27, functions in various contexts.
It seems sensible to start at a surface level analysis and work deeper. Thus, I will begin by reading the verses Rob explicitly quotes by themselves. That is, despite my objections, I will attempt – in all fairness – to consider whether these verses function independently to provide a clear enough picture for us to make any conclusions. I offer the following observations.
First, we learn in verse 26 that “For this reason” God has “given up” a group referred to as “them” to “degrading passions”. Already, for me, a couple questions arise:
- What does Paul mean by “For this reason”?
- Who is the “them” Paul references?
The commitment to these verses as a stand-alone thought requires we search verses 26-27 for clear answers to these questions. In verse 26, Paul describes these people (them) as consumed by “degrading passions”. These manifest as women exchanging “natural intercourse” for “unnatural”. While the text does not specifically state what this unnatural intercourse might be, verse 27 states that the men behave “likewise” by “giving up” sex with women for “shameless” passions which burn for other men. This gives us the ability to infer that verse 26 intends to describe some sort of sex act in which the women engage, potentially a same-sex act though it does not say as much. Verse 27 finishes by saying such “shameful acts” lead to consequences “in their own person” for their “error”.
This raises several more unanswered questions:
3. Why did Paul consider these passions “degrading”?
4. Why does Paul paint the issue as one of “natural” and “unnatural” intercourse?
5. Why does Paul use the word “shameless” to describe the acts between the men, but says very little about the acts of the women?
6. Is there anything in the surrounding context that would suggest what the “due penalty” in their “own persons” might be?
With so many unanswered questions, it seems verses 26-27 do not stand well on their own. However, Rob also claims verse 18 provides the context needed to sort out the “clear meaning” he has proposed.
Here, Rob notes that the text says Paul is addressing the “ungodliness and unrighteousness of mankind” and asserts that “even if homosexuality was related to idolatry, which evidently wasn’t the case, God’s word clearly views same-sex sexuality as [sin] in Romans 1:26-27 regardless of motive”.
Here is the NRSV translation of the verse.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
It is notable here that the NRSV chooses to translate the word anthropon in the Greek not to “men” or “mankind” (as Rob quoted from an alternate translation), but to “those”. As Greek is an androcentric language, a word meaning literally “men” can have several meanings often determined by context. It can mean a group of males, a gender inclusive group of persons, or connote all of humanity. However, whether we choose the translation Rob uses, or that of the NRSV, verse 18 does nothing to answer any of the six questions I have posited above.
On the other hand, it does raise a new question:
7. What is there in the immediate context of verses 18-32 that led the translators of the NRSV to render anthropon as a gender inclusive group of persons, but not as meaning all of humanity?
As such, I propose, the “clear meaning” Rob has proposed from the three verses provided in his comment is hardly “clear”. In fact, there is nothing in these passages which clearly indicates who Paul is speaking of (them) or the occasion for his words (for this reason). Instead, the proposed reading of these verses leaves us with considerably more questions than answers. Thus, it would appear, we ought to cast out nets a bit wider.
In answering question (7) above, I would argue verse 18 seems to have all of humanity in mind with the word anthropon. However, Paul immediately narrows his focus to a specific group on whom God’s wrath has come for being ungodly and wicked persons seeking to suppress the truth about God’s identity. Thus, it would seem, the choice of phrasing in the NRSV was meant to render the nuance of this narrowing.
However, from a flat treatment of verse 18 we do not, yet, know what this truth is. Thus, a larger contextual consideration is still necessary. If we push forward, past verse 18, and treat the entire immediate context (18-32) I believe some answers will begin to present themselves. For instance, in question (2) I asked:
Who are these specific people Paul has in mind? Answering this question will point to the “truth” these people have suppressed (per verse 18) as well.
In verses 19-23, Paul lays out an argument for God himself being evident in nature. God has made his existence plain to “them”. Though his true nature was invisible to “them”, “they” could discern his existence in what he had created. Yet “they” abandoned God and pursued foolishness, giving “themselves” over to senseless thinking and darkness.
Specifically, this group has ignored the immortal God of creation, instead making idols of “birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles” (22-23).
This does not provide a definitive answer to our question, but it at least begins to narrow down the potential candidates for whom, precisely, Paul has in mind. It also points to an answer for question (1). We now have enough information to posit what Paul meant by “For this reason” in verse 26.
It was for this reason that God “gave them up” to “impurity” and the “degrading of their bodies” which occurs by pursuing “the lust of their hearts”: these people had exchanged the truth of God as creator and embraced worship of his creation (24-25).
While we do not know definitively the identity of the people group yet, we have learned some things about them.
- They appear to worship nature, seeing the created as deity while rejecting the creator (25).
- They make carved images of these gods in the form of humans and/or various animals (23).
- These people claim to be the purveyors of wisdom (22).
These observations seem to indicate a high probability Paul is addressing something very specific. However, for now, it would be only speculation to assert precisely who this group might be.
There is, however, something more we can learn from this passage. That is, we have a framework for considering questions (3), (4), (5), and (6) regarding Paul’s use of the terms “degrading”, “natural” and “unnatural”, and “shameless”.
It is important to notice the way in which this passage asserts that God reveals himself in his creation. According to Paul, God reveals himself as the one whom ought to be worshipped through experience of nature. That is to say, God reveals himself as the naturally worshipped one.
It is quite ironic, then, that these persons reject him, fail to worship him, and give up on serving him because in doing so they worship created beings instead of the being that is Creator. They worship finite idols, graven images of people, quadrupeds, and reptiles. They quite literally make an unnatural decision from their experience of nature by worshipping it instead of God.
Thus, in response, God gives them up to their own devices. In answering question (6), because these persons practice their religion in pursuing their own ends they, the supposed wise, are proven to be foolish – their minds, hearts, bodies, and persons become debased. This leads to the indulgence of all forms of lust and evil. The plethora of sins listed includes “unnatural” sex acts, but also encompasses a litany of other non-sexual sins that “must not be done” (28). In fact, I would point out that the non-sexual sins of verses 29-31 outnumber the sexual sins of 26-27 nineteen to two.
From looking at these things, we can already begin to see here that Paul never conceived of this passage as a death blow against same-sex marriage in the Church. Instead, what Paul is speaking to is a specific situation within a specific group of people whose religion incorporates worship of the creation instead of the creator.
Paul is thus reminding his audience that those who refuse God, who reject him, inevitably fall into corrupt practices. Their entire society is built on corruption. Thus as they exchange worship or Creator for worship of creation, they will exchange that which God ordains as natural in creation for that which is not.
Here I want to take a moment to consider what the original Greek of verses 26-27 does (and does not!) say. First, it does not say all persons and all same-sex acts. In fact, what is at stake here is not – properly – sexuality at all. Already, we have seen that the reason their women and the men have abandoned relations with one another to pursue relations that are “unnatural” and “shameless”.
But this is tied to a societal practice emanating from worship of nature, that is to say – as Joel B. Green has noted – that what is considered sinful here is idolatry, or the rejection of God as creator and authority. The sex acts described are a symptom of this sin, they are acts committed in the process of this sin.
Next, it will also be helpful to look carefully at the Greek words for “degrading”, “natural”, “unnatural”, and “shameful”.
First, we will look at atimias. This word, rendered “degrading” in NRSV is actually better understood as dishonoring. That is, what Paul has in mind are passions which bring dishonor to those who indulge them. This word is from the same root as the word atimazesthai in verse 24, which states that God gave them up to the “impurity of their hearts” which manifests as “dishonoring (NRSV degrading) their bodies among themselves.”
In similar fashion, the word for “shameless” acts, aschēmosynēn, also bears the connotation of dishonor. However, this word often means “acts committed publicly which dishonor a person”. Thus, given that Paul has tied these sex-acts to worship of nature, it would seem reasonable that what he is addressing here are public sex acts committed in the cultic worship of nature gods.
Now, as we have already noted, Paul has identified this specific group as people who reject the Christian God as creator. The people claim themselves to be wise. They worship nature and their gods are statues or images in the likeness of humans and animals. They fail to see God as creator revealed in the act of creating an orderly world (ktiseos kosmou, vv. 18-25).
As such, they have been given up to these false gods, whom they worship with impure hearts that pursue dishonor by engaging in public acts which bring them disgrace. Thus, a natural sex act in Romans 1 is that which brings honor to the person and promotes the worship of God a creator. And a dishonorable sex-act is one which promotes the worship of false gods, leading to public dishonor.
This allows us to propose an answer to questions (3), (4), and (5). Paul calls these acts degrading because they are public acts of sexuality conducted in worship of a pagan deity (nature/fertility god). Paul ties the rejection of God as creator in nature to the rejection of orderly conduct (that which is natural). If God has revealed himself in the kosmos (root of kosmou), or order of creation, then to reject the God of this order is to reject what is natural and to embrace that which is unnatural, chaos which the Jews conceived as anti-god/creation. Since the act the females commit is considered to be implicit in describing the actions of the males, it makes sense to spend more time focusing on what the men have done – the sex act they have committed.
However, we still do not have an entirely satisfactory answer to question (2). In addition, I see another pertinent question which must be asked:
8. Were there any people groups with a history engaging is this kind of cultic worship at the time Paul wrote Romans?
First, I want to recognize that Rob has provided an article from Wikipedia (linked above) on “Homosexuality in Ancient Rome”. The article deals with many of the facets of same-sex practices in Roman culture. I am not sure, however, in what way this article is supposed to undermine my argument. It seems to me that Rob has, in reality, missed the crux of my argument altogether. However, in fairness to the source provided, I want to provide a very brief overview of what can be learned from it.
First, I want to recognize that the Wikipedia link does a fair job as an introduction to the topic. It hits the highlights well enough in emphasizing many of the ways in which same-sex acts typically occurred.
Between men these were:
- Prostitution: A dominant male could have relations with a male prostitute. This could be in either a cultic practice or in a wider societal setting.
- Sexual Slavery: A master could use his male slaves – both child and adult – as objects of sexual gratification.
- Pederasty: a male of higher class could take on a young prepubescent male as his charge. He would mentor the boy, with whom he would carry on a sexual relationship in order to teach him the core virtues. It ought to be noted that, while the proliferance of pederasty is disputed in Roman culture, literature suggests it was at least enough of a practice that prominent thinkers devoted time to condemning it.
- Rape in war: male soldiers, to humiliate the opposing army, would often rape the defeated soldiers publically.
The article also notes that female same-sex activity was not well represented in Roman literature. When it is referenced, one of the participants is usually described in “masculine” imagery – seen as the partner who penetrates.
I want to point out that the article itself stated that the Roman practice of same-sex activity was rooted in a culture of male dominance. It was quite often an act of aggression, mean to emasculate the penetrated partner.
In my opinion, these types of acts are What Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 6 with the words malakoi and arsenokoites, the latter echoed in 1 Timothy. Specifically, I believe Paul has in mind there aggressive and exploitative acts which seek to effeminate and emasculate others.
What is notably missing in this article – as Rob points out – is a specific reference to cultic practice. The question that emerges from this article is simple.
Does this article represent the only types of same-sex activity in Roman society? Or, were there other practices of same-sex genital acts considered acceptable in the Roman world?
The reality is, there were a great many fertility cults in Roman culture. Among these cults many were mystic cults, which included practices such as purity rituals, divine marriage, ritual castration, and ecstasy.
Before I continue, I want to be clear, there will be descriptions contained here which may offend. While I will do my utmost to not be explicit or graphic, the subject matter requires I at least offer an accurate account of worship practices.
Both the Roman Republican and Imperial periods have a well attested cult to the Divine Mother, a goddess often attributed to war and fertility. This Mother had many names, but one of the more common was Cybele (Latin) or Kybele (Greek), also sometimes alternately called Sybil. In the Sibylline cult, priests called Galli, would lead ecstatic rituals in worship of the goddess. Among these rituals of self-castration, erotic dancing, and in some cases orgies. Also, the galli were known to practice sexual acts despite having no genitalia. They were even known to assume the role of “penetrating” partner through acts of penetrative oral stimulation on both men and women. Imagery for this cult included statues of the goddess in human form as well as plant and animal imagery – including lions and snakes.
Because the gallus had no penis, these acts were considered an offense to Roman “virtue” and their patriarchal gender roles. That is, whether engaged in sex acts with a male or a female, sex acts committed by the galli we considered a violation of natural (patriarchal) order because the galli did not conform to either male of female identity. As such, these priests were commonly denied Roman citizenship. However, this did not prevent the cult from gaining traction.
Cybele was credited as the goddess which guided Rome to victory over the Carthagian army. As a result, the Roman government could not simply ban the cult, as it was central to the worship practices of many of its warriors. Further, risking displeasing the goddess who had delivered the Romans from a near defeat seemed ill advised. There is even attestation to the influence of the cult in the Roman capitol, even though full participation in orgiastic rituals was forbidden in the city.
I want to be clear here. I am not saying that the Sybilline cult can be explicitly identified as the group Paul is referring to. The text does not give enough evidence for a 21st century reader to make an absolutely certain identification – though I would point out the similarities to the group described in the text are significant. However, the question at hand is not whether we can pinpoint the exact group but whether there are any people groups fitting the bill of Romans 1:16-32 within Roman pagan worship and thus offering a challenge to Rob’s claim that same-sex acts in Roman society had nothing to do with idolatry. Since the Sybilline cult lines up well with the text, it seems to me it is no stretch to see specific practices within Roman fertility cults as the issue Paul wished to address with his audience.
It is at this point I will note an important – and often ignored – nuance of the Greek text of Romans 1:26. The Greek text does not state explicitly that the women in question were engaged in same-sex acts. It only says that God gave “them” – the inclusive group called anthropon in verse 18 – up to “passions of dishonor”. The women of this group of humans, who have rejected God, are said to have “exchanged that which is natural for what is unnatural”. This is depicted as occurring in the same way that the men have abandoned the natural and become consumed with lust for one another, practicing shameful same-sex acts.
If the act Paul had in mind was oral stimulation by a galli during worship practice of the goddess Cybele, then this could very well have been what Paul meant by both the men and the women being engaged in similarly sinful acts. However, whether Paul had specifically this in mind, or some other practice, what seems clear is that the reference is to specifically cultic sexual acts committed in the worship of pagan deities.
As such, I have proposed a sufficient answer to question (8) – yes there were groups at the time Paul was writing whose cultic practices fit the description Paul gives. Thus, we can begin to suggest, per question (2) that the “them” Paul refers to is a group of people with a history of involvement in pagan sex rituals.
However, before answering this question fully, I suggest some further insight is necessary.
As is often the case – especially in Paul’s letters – there is still much to be learned that not even the 18 verse context of Romans 1:18-32 can tell us. Thus, in order to more fully understand what Paul has in mind we must broaden our gaze more.
I want to begin by proposing that, at a minimum, Romans 1:16 – 3:31 ought to be treated as a single unit of thought. However, regardless of how many units of thought any epistle is divided into, it is also important to recognize that each individual argument is a microcosm of the whole, serving to build upon itself and form a coherent and persuasive rhetorical presentation for the intended audience.
As such, I will consider both contexts. First, it will be helpful to answer the still looming question of to whom Paul is referring with his constant use of plural gender inclusive pronouns, rendered in English as their, them, etc. Romans 1:16-17 will prove helpful:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Here, we see that Paul has set out to discuss the ways in which the Gospel has been revealed to both the Jews and the Gentiles. This gospel will reveal God as righteous and inspire faith in all who pursue his righteousness.
As such, in verse 18 the persons who “by their wickedness suppress the truth” are directly juxtaposed with those who are righteous, living by faith in God. In fact, the word used for “wickedness” (adikian) is a direct antonym of The words used for the righteousness of God (dikaiosyne) and for the righteous person (dikaios) in verse 17.
As such, it would seem that Paul has in mind a group of people, known to Roman Church who deny God and have worshipped nature as a false deity. As the passage specifically speaks of Jews and Greeks – a phrase used to encompass what was the known world of the Roman occupied territories – the references to sexual worship of pagan deities seems to indicate Paul has in mind specifically Greek speaking Gentiles and their well-known cultic practices in worship of pagan deities in Romans 1:26-27. This works to confirm the assertion made above and provide a sufficient answer for question (2).
Having answered the “who?” of Paul’s argument in Romans 1, it is important also to consider another question:
9. Why does Paul feel the need to speak to the Roman church about these passages?
As such, a consideration of the historical situation surrounding Paul’s writing of Romans will prove enlightening.
In 19 CE, the emperor Tiberius, at the behest of Sejanus, expelled all Jews from Rome. However, after Sejanus death in 31 CE the ban was lifted. By 41 CE there was a significant Jewish population in Rome once more. It is likely that, at this time, Christianity came to Rome with Jewish Christians immigrants and merchants traveling to the Roman capitol. Thus, the Roman church was founded on the work of Jews ministering to their Greek-speaking neighbors.
However, in 49 CE the Jews were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius for causing a disturbance “instigated by Chrestus” (often believed to be a reference to Christ). As a result, while the early Christian movement in Rome had begun among Jews (Thus why Paul states “to the Jew first”) the church was now entirely comprised of Gentile worshippers.
Thus the Roman church formed its own traditions in Christ without the input of Jewish traditions and culture. When Claudius died in 54CE, the Jews were again allowed to return to Rome. However, the Christians among them found a church that looked decidedly different from how they had left it.
This led to a power struggle, as the Jews and Gentiles both had separate Christian traditions which, to them, seemed incompatible. Approximately 4 years later, the Apostle Paul – in anticipation of an impending visit to Rome – sent his letter attempting to establish peace and unity in preparation for his visit.
The purpose behind writing Romans then is, in part, to overcome disunity in the congregation. Paul, in setting up God as a directly revelatory God, and creating an argument where none are innocent before their creator. Thus, Paul does not stop by merely showing the Greeks are culpable to their creator. He likewise holds the Jews accountable in chapter 2. The Jews may look down on their Gentile kindred, thinking “We know God’s judgement on those who do such things…”. But Paul reminds them that “when you judge those who do such things, yet still do them yourselves” they are equally accountable (vv. 2-4). Paul thus holds the Jews accountable the law. Because they have violated the law, they stand guilty before God. In fact, their use of the law to delineate themselves from the Gentiles only serves to further expose their guilt, for that is the sole function of the law (vv. 12-29).
While God entrusted himself first to the Jews, many were unfaithful to him (3:1-8). Thus, it is not better to be a Jew for “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (vv. 9, 23). As Paul sees it, being Jewish has no distinct advantage over being Gentile because, even if a Jew worships Yahweh as creator, unless they have kept very law as part of the covenant of circumcision, they stand condemned (2:17-29).
As such, the sin Paul looks to emphasize in Romans 1 is specifically sin apart from the law, which brings about death apart from the law (2:12-16). He is establishing unity by tracing through the divided community a line which leads away from lines of denigration and discord, and traces them both to identity found in “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22). With this in mind, I want to briefly return to Romans 1:16-32 to see how Paul is building towards this argument.
In 1:28-32 Paul lays out a litany of actions that, like the sex acts of 26-27, he considers related to be rejection of God. In fact, he argues that in rejecting God they have been given up to a mind that is adokimon. This word, in the Greek, bears the connotation of being false or counterfeited. Thus, Paul is stating that their counterfeit understanding (Greek noun) will lead them to embrace a host of things which are “not proper or fitting” (kathekonta) for persons who revere God.
These acts are depicted as unrighteous (adikia) and wicked (this time rendered with poneria). They not only know such actions are against creation purpose, they rebel in them and entice others to participant as well.
With this in mind, I feel confident in asserting that my focus on idolatry in Romans 1:26-27 is an entirely consistent reading within the larger argument for unity in the larger context of Romans. Paul is arguing that using one’s identity as “Jew” or “Greek” to create social strata or hierarchies of authority is not conducive to the formation of a Christ centered Christian community. Instead, Paul proposes the only boundaries of the Christian community are those who profess Christ, worshipping God properly in faith (the righteous) and those who don’t (unrighteous).
This concept occurs in other Pauline epistles as well. In 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Paul seeks to overcome division by reminding the Corinthian church that no one can affirm Christ as Lord unless they do so by the work of the Spirit (v. 3). Further, in 1 Corinthians 1:18-32, Paul calls the church to unity in the cross, which renders both Jewish and Greek wisdom foolishness and their power, weakness. God exalts the weak in the cross and gives them a new identity.
This is further upheld in Galatians 3, where Christ is considered a curse under the law (v. 3). Yet, in being accursed he overcomes the law – which demands death – and instead unites everyone who follows him as children of Abraham, a community in which the particularities of ethnic distinction find their truest form within the mutuality of an identity within God’s adopted family of covenant.
It is no coincidence then that in Romans 4 Paul transitions from a discussion of damnation to death before God in chapters 1-3 to a discussion of Abraham and his covenant. Just as Paul uses the covenant of Abraham to include all persons in the family of God in Galatians 3, he also traces the fulfillment of Abraham’s “blessing to the nations” (cf Gen 18:17-19, 22:15-18) in Christ as the beginning of Christian unity (4:13-35) and the promise of salvation in faith (vv. 1-12).
Some Further Considerations
Having established this, I want to move on from answering questions of hermeneutics and work towards a vision for Christian support of full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Church. To do so, I want to trace Paul’s argument through some important Old Testament concepts that, I believe, will help to demonstrate some important principles.
Paul, as a Pharisee, was a scholar of the Jewish Scriptures. It is no coincidence, then, that the treatment of divisions within the Roman church would be ideologically similar to ideas proposed in the Hebrew Bible – the only Scriptures possessed by both Jewish and Gentile believers in the 1st century C.E.
It is no coincidence then that his argument has deep roots in Genesis 1. In the opening creation poem of Scripture, we learn that God has created an orderly creation out of the chaos of watery deep. Using images typical of the Ancient Near East, Genesis uses water to represent anti-creation, or chaos. This is why the flood of Genesis 6-9 is so devastating. God quite literally destroyed his creation, returning it to its chaotic watery state, before recreating it again from the deep. In the same way, in Exodus 15 the Red Sea is depicted as a watery chaos from which the Hebrew slaves emerge as the nation of Israel, employing significant parallels with the Genesis account.
Further, throughout Scripture, God’s sovereignty over his creation is juxtaposed with the chaos of the “deep waters” (see here). Passages like Psalm 33 and 148 portray YHWH as the Lord over the deep, the one setting the boundaries of the chaotic waters and whom the sea monsters of chaos obey. Throughout the OT that which is ordered is natural, that which promotes chaos is not. Rejection of God is thus perceived as unnatural or unacceptable and those who perpetrate such actions in pagan cultic worship are promised that they will be undone, returned to a state of chaos or uncreation (e.g. Jnh 2; Isa 8:1-15).
Thus, when Paul speaks in Romans 1 of those who reject God and have their body, minds, hearts, and entire society become debased, he is depicting their uncreation in the rejection of their creator. In Romans 2, then, when Paul promises the Jews the same punishment for their unfaithfulness to the law – which parallels the unfaithfulness of the Gentiles in worshipping creator over created – it is notable he is evoking images of exile. In fact, that violation of the law would lead to their “uncreation” is stated by Moses in Deuteronomy 28. If the nation of Israel kept their end of the covenant of the law forged at Sinai (Exodus 19-24), they could expect blessing and protection from YHWH. However, if they rejected YHWH and were unfaithful to their covenant, then they could expect to be unmade – conquered and utterly destroyed by their enemies.
This is the covenant of circumcision referenced by Paul in Romans 2. Though Abraham’s covenant was eventually marked by circumcision, Paul notes it was a covenant that preceded the practice as a response to Abraham’s faith. Thus, through this covenant all persons are included among God’s people apart from circumcision (Rom 4, cf Gal 3). Abraham was counted as righteous by his faithfulness to God and trust in God’s provision. And it is through this faith, through Abraham’s righteousness, that Christ has fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant and all are now Children of God. As Paul states in Galatians 3, the law can only condemn and in Romans 2 Paul notes that those who worship God will be those who bear his mark on their heart, not on their flesh.
As such, both those who worship false deities and those who lose themselves in law miss the true nature of God and the worship he desires. Paul argues, we can only truly worship God in faithful imitation of Christ through humility and love of neighbor (Rom 13:8-10; cf. Phil 2:1-11).
That is not, however, the only connection to Genesis 1. In Romans 1, Paul uses specific terms for “male” and “female” (Arsenes and Theleiai respectively). These same root words occur when God makes humanity “male” and “female” in his image in the Septuagint (LXX) text of Genesis 1. As Paul is specifically invoking the theme of creation, it is hardly a coincidence that he invokes language indicative of a passage depicting it.
Paul is thus evoking the theme of creation purpose. The pagans described in Romans 1 have abandoned the God who created them in his image and thus that image has been utterly corrupted. In the same way, Israel in its adherence and insistence on law, has chosen to worship God in actions instead of in faith in Christ. In both instances, Paul sees these as corruption of purpose.
In Genesis 1, the order of creation is such that function is emphasized.  Genesis 1 fits neatly within the genre of Epic Poetry. It is stylistically similar to other creation narratives from the Ancient Near East. The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, depicts creation as a divine war between the deity Marduk and a giant sea serpent. In creating the world, Marduk kills the sea serpent Tiamat and rips her in two lengthwise. He then uses the two halves of the serpent to conquer the waters by separating them into an upper and low sea, forming sky and land.
Comparisons with the Epics of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh, older texts adapted by Enuma Elish, reveal further similarities between Genesis 1-11 and Ancient Near Eastern myths. These epics tell a story of creation from watery chaos, divine displeasure with humanity, and a flood from which a single person/family is saved.
However, it is notable that there is also a deal of dialectic tension between Genesis 1 and its Mesopotamian counterparts. The God of Genesis has no issue taming the waters. Also, humanity in Genesis is created to share in Yahweh’s purposes, not as slaves to the gods’ appetites. Also, a close reading of parallel biblical creation poems such as Job 26 (cf 40-41) and Psalms 74:12-17 reveal that there are ancient versions of the Israelite Epic containing stories of sea dragons and emphasizing Yahweh’s power over foreign deities (which are assumed to actually exist!). Our current account does not represent the entirety of Jewish thought, but the culmination of their identity in post-Babylonian chaos.
Lastly, a careful reading of the Genesis 1 creation epic will help reveal its own poetic structure. If you look at the flow of the text, you will notice it has a mirror image format.
Day 1 – Light & Dark/Day & Night
Day 4 – Greater & Lesser light marking day and Night
Day 2 – Waters Separated/Sky (dome) created
Day 5 – Waters and Sky filled with living creatures
Day 3 – Dry land and vegetation created
Day 6 – Dry land filled with animals and humans that consume vegetation
Day 7 – Creation culminates in God’s rest
As such, we discover that when Yahweh is depicted as ordering creation, the language connotes him carefully crafting each day as a skilled artisan. Also, He divides and orders in priestly fashion, separating everything according to its type. Lastly, he assumes the role of divine king in the seventh day.
The rule of God as king and priest is thus intimately connected to the notion of Sabbath rest. As such, a look at the mirrored structure of the poem shows the seventh day is the intended focus of Genesis 1-2:3. That is, it is important to our current discussion that only in Yahweh’s rest does humanity find its meaning.
While I won’t rehash here the complex biblical commands of Sabbath (I treat it briefly here), it is enough here to say that the Sabbath represented Israel’s response to the very real presence of Yahweh in the formation of their nation (cf Ex 16, 23:10-13; Lev 25). Israel was not called simply to observe Sabbath as a day of the week, but to live Sabbath in relation to their neighbor. Sabbath was emulation of Yahweh in all they did and the assurance of his presence in their midst. Failure to practice Sabbath was among the reasons Yahweh sent Israel into exile (Jer 17:19-17, cf 34).
It is no wonder, then, that the language of Yahweh’s rest is linguistically tied to his act of filling the tabernacle/temple with his Shekinah glory (Ex 40, 2 Chron 7). In both cases, what is at stake is Yahweh establishing his presence towards the establishment of his divine kingdom. The seven instructions for building the tabernacle (Ex 25-31) closely resemble the seven days of creation. Both passages culminate in Sabbath. The intricate imagery of the tabernacle/temple suggest it was intended as a microcosm of creation, reminding us that just as Yahweh indwells the tabernacle/temple, he has chosen to dwell within his creation.
Likewise, at the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests in Leviticus 8, the process is depicted as lasting 7 days and nights. At the end of the inauguration, we are told in Leviticus 9, that a fire from the Lord consumed the offering, marking that he had accepted Aaron and his son’s as priests. Considering this, we can begin to determine what it means to be made “in God’s image” in the narration of Day 6.
In stating that humanity – both male and female – are created in the image of God, we learn he has commissioned them for his purpose. The idea of bearing “image” in Hebrew is rooted in the notion of priestly kingship. In other words, in establishing his kingdom, and himself as ruler, Yahweh is inviting humanity to partake in his purpose, to rule accordingly in his kingdom.
This is consistent with the creation of Israel in Exodus 19. Having been delivered from the chaotic waters of the Red Sea (as noted above) an epic poem is written which strongly resembles the language and tone of Genesis 1 (Ex 14:1-21). At Sinai, as Israel makes their covenant before Yahweh, they are called to be the set apart as a holy nation, a “priestly” royalty which represents the kingdom of Yahweh before the nations (19:5-6).
Once we have established these things – Yahweh as indwelling ruler and humanity as priestly stewards – we can begin to divest ourselves from propositional treatments of Romans 1:26-27. Instead, we can address the larger narrative framework at play and begin to understand that what is at stake in Romans 1-3 is not what actions specifically are sinful, but instead how improper worship of God leads to sinful actions. In denying God as revealed in the cross of Christ, both Jews and Greeks have chosen to deny God’s purpose for them.
As we showed through Paul, in Jesus, the purpose of Abraham’s covenant, the blessing of all nations through his offspring, is thus fulfilled. The Jews self-understood purpose as steward and priest is extended also to the Gentile, who is also not included among those who are God’s children through the cross (cf Gal 3). As such, what is at stake here is, precisely, the identity of individuals in relationship to God and to his kingdom purpose. This is why idolatry is said to lead to sin, not sin to idolatry. The two, as Paul sees it, are intricately connected as the worship of something false leads one to reject the calling and purpose of God in humanity for all creation. This is why, in Romans 8, Paul depicts creation as subjected to futility by humanity and as groaning in labor, awaiting the redemption of humanity that the New Creation might be realized.
Through the cross, Christ establishes solidarity with the oppressed, inflicted, and abused of humanity (Isa 52:13-53:12). In fact, as I pointed out before, in “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) God exalts what the world finds weak and foolish (1 Cor 1:18-32). Jesus became the thing which the world rejected, abandoned by God, crucified a rebel and cursed as a blasphemer, the very embodiment of sin for those whom the world would condemn (Luke 20:9-19; Matt 27:46; 2 Cor 5:11-21).
The cross of Christ teaches that us that he is for the least of these, their sufferings are his sufferings (Matt 25:31-46; 1 Peter 2:21-25). As such, I am confident in saying that the Christ of God, when he was crucified, died as one among the LGBTQ community. As persons made in his image, he takes on their suffering and rejection and counts himself among them even as they are abused and abandoned by those who claim to worship him, but do not know his love (1 Cor 13, 1 John 4). LGBTQ persons can find their identity in Christ by knowing that they were created to be in communion with him, and his body, to be fulfilled according to whom God has created them to be in his cross. He does not call them to abandon their identity, but instead to discover the fullness being created as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer persons within his community, the Church.
When we, as straight/cis Christians, deny the LGBTQ community their place within the body of Christ, we are in fact denying their humanity and rejecting the work of Christ on the cross.
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:8-12)
 Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Fortress: Minneapolis, 1993) p. 75.
 Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) p. 101.
 Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and F.W. Danker, “ἀτιμία, ας, ἡ” p. 149 in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).
 BDAG, “ἀτιμάζω”, p. 148-149.
 BDAG, “ἀσχημοσύνη, ῆς, ἡ”, p. 147.
 BDAG, “φυσικός, ή, όν”, p. 1069.
 BDAG, “φύσις, εως, ἡ” pp. 1069-1070.
BDAG, “παρά”, p. 756-758.
 BDAG, ”κτίσις, εως, ἡ”, p. 572-573.
BDAG, “κόσμος, ου, ὁ”, p. 561-562.
 Luke and Monica Roman, “Cybele” pp. 122-123 in Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Cults (New York City: Facts of Life, 2010).
 Eric M. Orlin, Foreign Cults in Rome: Creating an Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) from Ch. 3 of Google Books copy.
 Lynn E Roller, In Search of the God Mother: The Cult of Anatolean Cybele (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999) pp. 38-39, 131-138, 152-154, 169-170.
 Orlin, Foreign Cults.
 Sarolta A. Takacs, “Magna Deum Matre Idaea, Cybele, and Catallus’ Attis” pp. 367-386 in Cybele, Attis, and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of M.J. Vermaseren, ed. Eugene N. Lane (New York: Brill, 1996).
 Mary Beard, “Religion” pp. 729-768 in The Last Age of the Republic, 146-43 B.C., vol. 9 of The Cambridge Ancient History, ed. J.A. Crook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) esp. pp. 763-768.
 BDAG, “ἀδικία, ας, ἡ”, pp. 20-21. “δικαιοσύνη, ης, ἡ”, pp. 247-249. “δίκαιος, ία, ιον”, pp. 246-247.
 John Reuman, “Romans”, pp. 1277-1313 in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) esp. p. 1277-1278.
 John Reuman, “Romans, Letter to the” pp. 1135-1138 in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). esp. 1136
 Reuman, “Romans”, ECB, pp. 1277-1278.
 ibid. p. 1279
 BDAG, “ἀδόκιμος, ον”, p.21.
 BDAG, “νοῦς, νοός, νοΐ, νοῦν, ὁ”, p. 680. “καθήκω”, p.491.
 R.W.L. Moberly, TheTheology of the Book of Genesis, Old Testament Theology Series, eds. Brent A. Strawn and Patrick D. Miller (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). pp. 43-50.
 Ibid, 54-57 (quoting John D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988]).
 John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2009) pp. 72-77.;
 Crucified God, p. 153.