Romans 1:26-27 is one of the few Bible passages commonly used to condemn homosexuality. But, unlike the other “clobber passages” (as they’ve come to be called), this is the only passage in the entire Bible that condemns both male-male and female-female sexual activity. As such, it’s the only one that can, in any way consistent with its language, be legitimately interpreted as condemning same-sex sexual activity in any general or universal way. But, just because an interpretation is legitimate does not mean that it is correct. Consequently, the passage still requires careful and thoughtful deliberation.
So, let’s dive right in and see just what this passage is about.
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:  And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”
The language couldn’t be more clear. Both male-male and female-female sexual activity were condemned as vile, against nature (unnatural), and unseemly. Not only were the activities condemned, but the assertion of their appropriate punishment (“recompense… which was meet”)—which is often interpreted as sexually transmitted diseases—reinforces just how bad these activities were considered.
As apparent as the language of this passage may seem, however, it behooves us to consider the textual and cultural contexts within which these verses reside. We’ll then be in a much better position to interpret and apply the language of the verses in a manner most consistent with their original intent.
The best way to begin is to examine the greater textual context for clues as to what brought on this serious condemnation of same-sex activity. Was it just a random thought that Paul wanted to be sure to address, or what it a part of a bigger discourse on some other issue? To answer these questions, we’ll begin with verse 18, and read through until the end of the chapter. I do, however, encourage you to read the entire chapter when time permits.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;  Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:  Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,  And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.  Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:  Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.  For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:  And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.  And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;  Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,  Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,  Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:  Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.”
By considering verses 26-27 in isolation from their surrounding context, we could easily make the mistake of believing that the subject of his message was homosexuality. In fact, this was not the case. When homosex sexual intercourse was mentioned, it was specifically related to his message concerning people who were thwarting the revelation of God by engaging in idolatrous practices.
In verse 18, Paul transitioned into a discussion about a certain group of people against whom God’s wrath was revealed. He described the effects of their sin in verses 19-22, and then identified the group in verses 23 and 25. He was speaking about idolaters—people who changed the glory of God into fashioned images that resembled men and animals. These images are called idols, and it is from the worship of these idols that we get the word “idolatry”. And the worship of idols was exactly what the people Paul was referring to engaged in (v. 25).
Now that we’ve determined the context of Paul’s statement, we’re in a much better position to interpret and apply his words in a manner consistent with the original intent. Ultimately, the accurate interpretation boils down to the answer to a simple question: Does Paul’s condemnation of homosex sexual acts in verses 26-27 apply to any such acts in general (a moral pronouncement that is universally applicable), or does it only apply to such acts engaged in within the socio-religious framework of idolatry?
Most people will be quick to answer this question one way or the other, depending on where they already fall in their theological beliefs concerning homosexuality. They’ll choose to interpret the passage in a manner consistent with their existing beliefs. But, such an approach won’t serve us here because rather than looking to validate existing beliefs, we want to allow Scripture to speak for itself. Consequently, we have to look into the text itself to see if it provides any hints as to the answer to this pertinent question.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that a surface-level reading of the text can easily justify either conclusion. On one hand, the subject of Paul’s discourse is idolatry, not sexuality. The homosex sexual acts are only an extension of the idolatrous practices that are at the heart of the matter. As a result, a case can be made that homosex sexual acts engaged in outside of the realm of idolatrous worship would not fall within the scope of Paul’s condemnation.
But on the other hand, a case can also be made that although it’s clear that the subject of Paul’s message is idolatry, the homosex sexual acts that extended from that idolatry were still described in language that indicates a divine perspective on the acts themselves, whether idolatry is involved or not. In fact, vile (v. 26), against nature/unnatural (vs. 26 and 27), and unseemly (v. 27) were all words Paul used to describe the acts themselves, not the idolatry that they found their source in.
Such interpretational problems are a perfect case in point. Scripture is not to be used to validate doctrine. Rather, we should use it to formulate doctrine (2Timothy 3:16). If we start off reading a passage with an absolute certainty of what it means, it is ever-so-easy to read into the text a validation of those beliefs—whether the text itself actually supports those beliefs or not. I strongly encourage you to remain mindful of this when engaging in biblical study, especially when it involves issues with implications as serious as those surrounding sexual orientation.
So, which of these interpretations is correct? The only way a certain answer can be derived is by examining the text itself, as well as related passages, for clues. One very important rule of interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Let’s employ this rule and determine exactly what Paul is condemning.
The first thing that must be acknowledged is that the subject of this passage was, indeed, idolatry, not sexuality. Not only is this borne out by the verses preceding verses 26-27, but also, Paul made an explicit link between the idolatry that was his subject matter and the homosex sexual activity. In verses 23-24, Paul identified these people as idolaters (verse 23) and then said, “wherefore” (or “therefore”) in relation to God giving them up to sexual uncleanness (verse 24). Clearly, he was saying that their same-sex sexual acts were a result of their idolatry.
This isn’t where the connection ends, though. It’s interesting that people love to read verse 26 in isolation from verse 25; yet the very beginning of verse 26 states, “For this cause” (or “for this reason”). Well, for what reason? Seeing that God gave them over to “vile affections” (which were identified as same-sex sexual affections), what exactly was the reason? Was it because they were born that way? Was it because they were molested during adolescence? What exactly was the reason these people engaged in same-sex sexual activity? Well, if we back up to verse 25, we discover the reason. Paul explicitly told us that they “changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.” Again, Paul identified idolatry as the cause of their same-sex sexual activity.
So then, the first thing we must drill into our minds is that Paul looked at these sexual acts through a specific lens. It wasn’t the lens of whether someone is born gay. It wasn’t even the lens of whether they become gay because of upbringing or traumatic sexual experiences during childhood development. He wasn’t even talking about sexual experimentation or feelings that just seem to develop over time. He was specifically talking about sexual activity being engaged in as a direct result of idolatry. To deny this explicit link to idolatry is to deny the language that God saw fit to inspire Paul to use, not once (in verses 23-24), but twice (also in verses 25-26).
In fact, we find this connection to idolatry emphasized a third time in this passage. Immediately after Paul condemned the sexual activity in verses 26-27, he once again stated that God’s judgment was a result of their idolatry. In verse 28, he said, “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind…” If you look at other common translations, it reads something like, “And because they did not…” or as “Since they did not…” Again, this judgment was not the result of the sexual activity. It was the result of their idolatry. Because they rejected the worship of the one true God, God gave them over.
The obvious question is: Why was their homosex sexual activity an extension of idolatry? What was it about the context of their sexual acts that connected them to idolatry in so explicit a way as to make Paul draw this connection not once or twice, but three times? I’m telling you… If we fail to consider this link, we will fail to properly interpret this passage.
Before considering this link, however, let’s examine the words Paul used to describe the sexual activity itself. Let’s determine whether or not Paul’s description of the activity as vile, against nature, and unseemly is subject to the activity’s relation to idolatry, or if it describes the activity irrespective of its context within idolatrous custom.
|vile||atimias||Strong’s G819 – infamy, that is, (subjectively) comparative indignity, (objectively) disgrace: – dishonour, reproach, shame, vile|
|against nature||para phusin||Strong’s G3844/G5449 – beyond or opposed to native disposition, constitution or usage|
|unseemly||aschêmosunên||Strong’s G808 – an indecency|
Two of these Greek words—atimias and aschemosunen—have meanings that are apparently subjective. For example, the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor is infamous in American history, but likely famous in Japanese history. Likewise, what is considered disgraceful, dishonorable, shameful or indecent is subject to the particular culture within which the acts involved are perceived. It is disgraceful, for instance, to show one’s back to a ruler in many monarchistic societies, whereas such a thing is not given a second thought in the United States.
Not so obviously subjective is the meaning of para phusin—beyond or opposed to native disposition, constitution or usage. At face value, it seems almost certainly objective. Still, it would serve us well to consider other biblical usages of these terms. If we cannot be absolutely certain of their objectivity or subjectivity by considering this isolated usage, a wider perspective of the biblical writers’ use of these terms (with special emphasis on Pauline usage) will almost certainly indicate whether or not his description is subject to the society in which he lived.
Let’s start with atimia—translated as “vile” in verse 26. Does Paul use the term elsewhere in Scripture in a subjective way?
“Doth not even nature [phusis] itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame [atimia] unto him?”
In this passage, Paul actually uses two of our terms—phusis (the root of phusin) and atimia. We’d be hard-pressed to find a person within the modern Church who believes that this passage establishes a universal principle concerning hair lengths on men. Only in the most legalistic mind would a person believe that God is the least bit concerned with how long a person’s hair is. To the contrary, what He is concerned about in passages such as this one is what long hair on a man represents; and what it represented within the ancient Greco-Roman society (femininity; a rebellion against the prevailing patriarchal social order) is very different from what it represents in modern Western society (absolutely nothing). Consider Native American Christians. Should we demand of them that they cut their hair to a certain length, despite the fact that their ethnic culture has no such stigma on men with long hair?
When we fail to understand why a command was given in the first place, we can find ourselves applying it to people and situations to which it was never intended to apply. This may certainly be an easier approach to Scripture—for it doesn’t require a person to think beyond what they read on the page—but it certainly isn’t the way to honorably approach God’s word, which can only maintain its holiness and efficacy if applied in a manner consistent with its original intent.
Let’s take our examination a step further. As with every language, Greek is not absolutely precise. People often employ synonyms in different contexts, although the overall point being made is the same. So, although Paul used both atimia and phusis in 1Co. 11, does he describe culturally subjective things in Scripture using synonyms of these words, or of aschemosunen (unseemly, indecent)? Actually, he does.
Judge in yourselves: is it comely [prepon (G4241) - suitable, proper, fitting, becoming] that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame [aischron (G149) - a lack of decorum] for women to speak in the church.”
It’s clear that Paul certainly used these words in a manner reflective of the culture within which he lived. Consequently, the application of his descriptions would necessarily have to reflect changes within those cultural perceptions.
Even Paul’s appeal to nature in Romans 1:26-27 does not necessarily indicate a divine pronouncement, or some type of universal principle. We certainly don’t consider his appeal to nature in 1Co. 11:14 as a universal, divine pronouncement concerning hair lengths on men (and, considering verse 15, hair lengths on women).
Since it cannot be our default belief that homosex sexual activity is still “vile”, “against nature”, or “unseemly”—seeing as Paul used the same (and synonymous) words to describe culturally subjective things elsewhere in Scripture—we have to consider why he said what he said. Uncovering his purpose in describing the acts the way he did will help us determine whether or not the description still applies.
This is where the textual and cultural context is vitally important. It is only through understanding Paul’s socio-religious location, as well as the overall argument he was making in this passage of Scripture, that we will be able to properly apply his words within the modern socio-religious context—a context that is substantially different than the one Paul originally addressed.
We’ve already determined that the textual context dealt not with human sexuality but with idolatry. Paul’s language in the text expressly indicates that the sexual activity being condemned was absolutely an extension of the idolatrous worship that was the subject of his discourse. Remember that he, three times, connected the judgment of God in relation to the sexual activity to their idolatry. He said, “wherefore/therefore”, “for this cause/reason”, and “as they did not/because they did not”. The sexual activity cannot be considered in isolation from the idolatry that it resulted from. To do so would be to detach verses 26-27 from their context, thereby twisting God’s word.
Now, I previously raised the question of why Paul would state three times that the sexual activity these people engaged in resulted from idolatry. The answer to this question is very easily found by considering the culture within which Paul lived (Greco-Roman), and the particular people to whom he addressed his epistle (the Romans).
From the cultural perspective, the ancient Greco-Roman world was known for its open sexuality. One mustn’t dig deep into history to discover that the Greco-Romans engaged in activities as sexually liberal as temple prostitution and orgies, particularly in religious contexts associated with the worship of the Roman god, Bacchus (called Dionysus by the Greeks). Considering the textual association of the same-sex sexual acts with idolatry, it is almost certain that this type of cultic sexual activity was what he was referring to. To his Jewish eyes, such acts were directly associated with idolatrous worship, and had been considered so for almost 1,500 years (Lev. 18:1-3, 22; 22:1-8, 13). The fact that those within his culture who engaged in the activity often did so within the framework of their idolatrous beliefs only cemented his view that those acts were vile, unnatural, and unseemly.
It was the activity’s association with the idolatrous Greco-Roman society that colored Paul’s view of the acts in general. As far as he was concerned, all same-sex sexual acts were a symptom of idolatry—much like we consider the swastika or burning cross hateful, even though it is actually what they represent that is what’s hateful. Still, when we see such things, we don’t stop and think, What’s the context here? The images immediately invoke a certain negative reflexive emotion. As a Black man, I have the same revulsion at the very sight of the Confederate flag <spits on the ground>, which some people still don’t seem to understand.
Following this logic, it is not only appropriate but vital to proper hermeneutics (methods of interpretation) to consider the association of the images described when determining whether the description is relevant or applicable to our modern society. Is same-sex sexual activity still deeply intertwined with idolatrous culture and/or worship? The answer is: Absolutely not. As is the case with heterosexuality, there are certainly homosexuals who are not Christians, and some who likely subscribe to idolatrous beliefs (worshiping images and icons); however, no sincere person can possibly conclude that homosexuality has anything to do with idolatry within the modern world. Even the most ardent opponents of homosexuality don’t immediately think “idolater” when they think “homosexual”. Instead, they likely think, “Nasty bastard!” No one is imagining homosexuals bowing to a statue of Bacchus, yet that’s precisely what Paul envisioned when condemning same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1.
This is not a guess by Pastor Weekly. Three times, Paul explicitly linked the sexual activity (and God’s releasing them unto it) to their idolatry. These were not people who were faithful servants of Christ. These were not people who had committed their lives to serving Christ and who never bowed to another god. These were not people who wanted lifelong, monogamous (marital) relationships with people of the same-sex, based on inner attractions having absolutely nothing to do with idolatry. These were idolaters, plain and simple, and the sex they engaged in was prompted by their idolatry. Such is absolutely not the case in modern society, and it certainly isn’t the case when it comes to gay Christians, who would sooner die than worship someone or something other than the Lord Jesus!
Now, I understand that people can sincerely read verses 26-27 and misinterpret them. They can even read the greater context and miss the links Paul made and the reason he made those links simply because they’re reading into the text what they’ve been taught down through the years. Still, in the here and now, we have to make a decision. Either we’ll let the text speak to us afresh, or we’ll cling to that old rugged doctrine. Either we’ll accept the fact that Paul clearly condemned this sexual activity within the context of idolatry, or we’ll continue to consider these passages an everlasting condemnation of homosexuality in general, directly contradicting the inspired language of the text itself, as well as an objective consideration of the culture that prompted the language.
Taking into account all that we have considered, it would be wholly inappropriate to hold modern people to Paul’s ancient worldview. While he rightly condemned the activity he witnessed within the idolatrous Greco-Roman culture—much like I, as a pastor, might condemn the inverted pentagram, swastika, and other images or acts associated with evil things within our society—that condemnation is now wholly obsolete because the sexual activity is no longer culturally intertwined with and representative of idolatry, and it most certainly is not being engaged in by people as an extension of idolatrous beliefs or practices. Applying it to 21st century humanity is as ridiculous as condemning a modern woman for wanting to wear her hair short (1Co. 11:15), which, regrettably, a few fringe churches still do—God help us!