Homosexuality and The Apostle Paul: A Study on Romans 1:26-27
Dia touto begins this verse, which translated simply means “For this reason.” This harkens back to the previous verse and indicates that what is about to be said is the result of the idolatrous culture. God has not been worshipped, but rather He has been usurped by the idols of creatures, and even the idol of mankind, itself. This verse is the result of exchanging the truth of God for a lie.
Paradoken – this word is repeated from v.24. God again gives them over to their desires. In v.24, He gave them over “in the lusts of their hearts” to impurity. Morris (NICNT: 1996) notes that this phrasing “shows that those who were handed over were already immersed in sin” (p.110). In v.24, these people already had an inborn desire to sin and were beginning to flirt with impurity. God simply allowed them to do so and they indulged. Likely, the same emphasis is found here in v.26, just as we will see that the same is true of the term for “exchange.”
The next phrase is “to degrading passions” – (eis patha atimias) – literally, “to emotions of dishonor” or “passions of dishonor”. This phrase is parallel to “impurity” in v.24, and while the word for “impurity” was somewhat ambiguous as to whether it dealt with sexuality, this phrase is not. Regarding this Morris says, “Paul’s use of the word ‘passions’ ... makes clear that he refers to illicit sexual passions” (pp.113-114).
“For” (gar) signals that Paul is about to explain in what way these people were given over to “dishonorable passions.” He goes on: “their women exchanged” – the word for “woman” (thaleiai) here is found rarely in Paul. Regarding this, Morris says in a footnote, “Paul’s use of the antonyms thelusi/arsen [female/male] (v.27) rather than, e.g., gune/aner, stresses the element of sexual distinctiveness and throws into relief the perversity of homosexuality by implicitly juxtaposing its confusion of the sexes with the divine ‘male and female he created them.’ For the pair thelus/arsen is consistently associated with the creation narrative (cf. Gen. 1:27; Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6…).” Schreiner picks up on this and adds that in “selecting the unusual words thelus … and arsen … rather than gune and aner … he drew on the creation account of Genesis, which uses the same words.” The same words, that is, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT that Paul exclusively used in his letters and with which his audience would have undoubtedly been most familiar. Again, this ties together the overriding theme of creation explicit in this passage.
Let’s now examine the word, “exchanged.” Paul uses the same word as he did in vv.23 and 25, again adding to the parallel nature of the passage. He says they exchanged “the natural function for that which is unnatural” – literally “the natural use to the [use] against nature.” This is the crux of the verse, and dare say the entire argument Paul is making regarding what I will later argue is homosexual relationships. The word that is translated “natural” means “belonging to nature, innate, a natural condition.” The word chresin here is translated, “function.” It is used only one time in the NT, and this is it. It is used often though in Greek to denote “sexual intercourse” and is found used this way in works by Lucian, Plutarch, and coincidentally in Plato’s Symposium, which we will get to in just a moment. This seems to again clearly show that this text is dealing with sexual relationships, specifically those of a homosexual nature.
And speaking of nature, the “exchange” (“exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural”) is clearly made from natural sexual intercourse to that which is para physin, or “against nature.” This phrase is incredibly important in this passage. But, first let’s deal with the word physikos, meaning “natural” in this passage. It is used only three times in the NT. Twice it is used in this passage and once in 2 Peter 2:12 where it is used to describe animals. The general definition is “given by, or according to nature” (TDNOT, V.IX, p.271). Now looking at the word, physis, translated “nature” at the end of this verse, is used often by Paul to denote things common to all people. In Romans 2:14 it is translated, “instinctively” and refers to all Gentiles. In 2:27 it again refers to all Gentiles. The same is true of 11:24, 27. In 1 Cor. 11:14 he uses it to refer to a universal principle which is observable in the physical world. In Galatians 2:15, he refers to the fact that all Jews are so by physical ancestry. In Gal. 4:8 he is referring to fact that idols are not “by nature” gods. And Ephesians 2:3 refers to all people’s status as being objects of wrath were it not for the grace of God. So, in every case, Paul uses this term to refer to a universal principle and/or complete group. He is lumping all people or items together into one category. Never does he use it to denote a minority group separate to the majority group. So when one says that this is in reference to the nature of an individual person separate from all women or men, it seems unlikely given Paul’s normal usage. If such a strange reading were legitimate it would be the first time he is using the word in that regard and does not fit with his usage of the word in other parts of the book of Romans, which he likely wrote all in one sitting with one purpose – to lay out the Gospel for the Church at Rome.
Now, let’s deal with the phrase, “against nature” or para physin specifically for a moment. It is used one other time in Romans and no where else in Scripture. In 11:24, Paul says literally, “For if you [Jews] were cut off from what is by nature [kata physin] a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature [para physin] into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural [physikos] branches be grafted into their own olive tree.” The argument goes like this: The Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree of Abraham’s descendants (though they were by ancestry not Jews) by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ. This was unnatural or [contrary to the laws of nature] to do so. Still if God is able to do that, then surely He is able to bring those Jews who were by ancestry into their own tree as well. So again, we see this phrase used to express a universal understanding of people (and trees). Again, nothing seems to suggest that Paul is using this phrase to denote the nature of an individual or group of individuals within the larger population.
But, what is most interesting about this phrase is Paul’s use of it in Romans 1:27 when dealing with an issue with obviously sexual overtones. Remember that Paul is speaking to a Gentile audience and that he is a Roman citizen who was educated according to both Jewish law and Greek philosophy (as we seen when he goes to Mars Hill in Acts 17 and his discussion on philosophy in 1 Corinthians, as well as his use of rhetoric throughout his writings).
Knowing this, we find the either phrase “against nature” (para physin) or the effect Paul may be trying to cause with this phrase often in Greek literature. Let’s turn now to Charles Talbert for more on this:
For example, In Plato, Laws 1.2 [626B-C] said same-sex relations were ‘contrary to nature’; Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.758, had a girl involved in same sex love say ‘nature does not will it’; Ps-Lucian, Erotes 19, said female homoeroticism is contrary to nature (Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, Romans, 2002, p.66).We also find evidence from Hellenistic Judaism. Again Talbert says, “Philo, On Abraham XXVI.135, spoke about men, discarding laws of nature, lusting after one another. In Special Laws, 2.XIV.50, he talked about men lusting unnaturally. T. Naphtali 3:4 said: “Do not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of nature” (which lends evidence to the use of “Sodom” throughout Christianity to refer not just to rape, etc., but to general homosexual practice) (Talbert, 66). He goes on:
Ps-Psocylides 190 exhorted the readers not to transgress sexually the limits set by nature. Josephus [a contemporary of Paul], Against Apion 2.25 + 199, said the law ‘owns no other mixture of sexes but that which has appointed…It abhors the mixture of a male with a male.’ Second Enoch 10:4 regards homosexual practice as a sin against nature.And then we find this phrase used after the writing of Scripture, by the early Church Fathers to speak of homosexual relationships as unnatural, giving weight to the fact that the early Church believed Paul to be using “nature” and “against nature” in this way. Regarding these examples Talbert offers:
This Jewish contention was by the early fathers. Polycarp, Philippians 5.3, for example, said that those given to unnatural vice would not share in the kingdom of God. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 2.12.55 and 7.10.59, said women who married women acted contrary to nature [see there is talk about homosexual marriage in the early Church]. For him, the Genesis creation narrative laid the framework for understanding nature as gendered. John Chrysostem’s Fourth Homily on Romans treats both male and female homoeroticism as unnatural.The evidence here is overwhelmingly in favor of a reading of “contrary to nature” as meaning against the nature of all men, with the term “naturally,” as we will see, referring to heterosexuality and para physin (“contrary to nature”) referring to homosexuality.
Turning back to the verse itself, were v.27 to have been omitted by Paul, we would still know that:
1. Paul was describing what results from a culture that has turned away from God.
2. This results in a sinful activity.
3. This sinful activity involves women and of a sexual nature.
4. A natural, non-sinful sexual activity has been exchanged for this sexually sinful activity
5. This sinful sexual activity is wrong because it goes against the nature of all women.
Now that we’ve covered the wording Paul used in v.26, let’s move on to v.27.
“And in the same way” is a phrase that indicates that the men described in v.27 were involved in the exact same type of activity. With just this phrase we can surmise that all five of the summarizing statements regarding v.26 are true of these men he going to describe in v.27.
Next Paul says, “the men abandoned the natural function of the woman.” The word for “abandoned” is best understood as “forsake” or “give up.” We have already covered the word “natural” as it denotes the normal activity of a general group. And we have also dealt with the word for “function” noting that it is used in regards to sexual activity. The phrase “of the woman” denotes a subjective genitive (the case of possession) and could be translated, “the woman’s natural function” or “the woman’s normal sexual activity.” This emphasizes that the men gave up sexual relationships with women, or said another way, they “forsook the sexual activity that they could have had with women” in favor of something else. Like the women they exchanged this “natural sexual activity” for something that was “unnatural.”
These men, abandoning the natural sexual activity of the woman, “burned in their desire toward one another.” This is actually the first main verb in this sentence. So literally, “as they abandoned, they also had a strong desire.” The word here is translated as “burned” in order to catch the emphasis in the Greek construction of the verse. Also, the verb is normally an active verb, but here its form is in the passive voice. Literally, it says, “[the men] were made to have a strong desire in their desire for one another.” This verse seems to make it clear that the men gave up the sexual activity they could have had with women and instead were inflamed with a desire for each other, which would obviously be other men.
But just in case Paul wasn’t clear, he uses the phrase, “men with men.” The first “men” in this phrase is in the nominative case (the case generally given to the subject of a sentence). This is strange for a word in the middle of a sentence to be in the nominative case, but this denotes that it has a specific function. Here it is what Daniel Wallace (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 1996) calls a “Parenthetic Nominative,” whose “use is primarily explanatory and is frequently an editorial aside” (p.53). Paul wants his readers to understand what he means by “burned for one another.” He means that men had sex with other men. At this point there is no doubt that he is speaking of homosexual relationships.
Paul doesn’t stop there, but continues adding, “men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” About this sentence James R. White writes,
The mutuality of this desire is emphasized by the phrase “men with men.” The apostle leaves no doubt as to his reference: adult homosexuals. And these are active men: they act upon their desires, accomplishing what Paul identifies as literally “the shameful deed,” or as it is rendered by the NASB and NIV, “indecent acts.” The term comes from an old word that referred to something as “deformed,” and hence flows into the concept of perversion and deviation that is part and parcel of this section of the chapter. There is no possible way of reading this term as referring to anything neutral or simply “unusual” or “out of the norm.” Paul views homosexual activity as shameful or indecent.
And just in case his readers didn’t understand from his argument that these acts were sinful, Paul closes this verse with the words, “and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” Certainly this act was sinful if indeed those who commit such are given their “due penalty.” Scholars differ on what this due penalty may mean. Many point to 1 Cor. 6:9 where Paul condemns certain sins and claims that those who commit such will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This verse is very controversial, however, because Paul uses the term, arsenokoites, which many say is not a legitimate term for “homosexual” given its limited usage in Greek. In fact, there are no known usages of it before the Hellenistic Jew Philo who was likely born just a few years before Paul, though Paul was probably very aware of his writings. So where did the term come from? Likely it came from Philo, who probably found this term in the Septuagint (LXX) and then used the term to refer to male homosexual sex. And then Paul picked up on this himself, for, as we noted earlier, Paul used the LXX exclusively in his letters. What both Philo and Paul would have found was the two words, arsen (men) and koiten (have sex with) in both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in the LXX. But what is striking is that in verse 13 of chapter 20 we find the two words directly next to one another. The verse reads in Greek, hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gunaikos. It was very common in Greek, and sometimes now happens in English, to combine two words together to form a new word that carried with it the meaning of the two. As the ancient languages had a limited vocabulary, this practice was the chief way in which words were created and the language was broadened. Often, after the word becomes common, it loses its original meaning and comes to have another one, though still reflective in some way of the two words of which it is constructed.
Another view of the “due penalty in their persons” is that Paul is referring to the fact that once one goes down the path toward homosexuality, he or she will be hooked by it and become fully engaged homosexuals, losing the joy they would have been able to experience in “natural” sexual relations. Whatever the meaning of this particular phrase we can certainly gather the following facts from our study of these verses:
- Paul is indicting the Gentile culture for their idolatry.
- Paul’s overall argument is based upon the observance of the created order, which the Gentiles were privy to despite their lack of the Law God had given to the Jews. Thus they were without excuse.
- He points out that a culture this idolatrous will be given over by God to pursue their depravity.
- This depravity is exemplified in at least three ways: They ignored the divine attributes of God despite the witness of the created order, they exchanged the glory of God to worship idols of men and animals despite the witness of the created order, and they exchanged the natural function of heterosexual relationships for homosexual ones despite the obvious witness of the created order.
Specifically, Paul argues in vv.26-27 the following:
- Because of the idolatrous culture, God gave the people over to “degrading passions.”
- These “passions” inflicted women who exchanged the natural sexual intercourse with men for “that which is contrary to nature”
- In the same way, the men forsook the natural sexual intercourse women provided for sexual intercourse with men, leading the reader to understand that in the previous verse Paul was saying that women did the same with other women.
These acts were “contrary to nature,” which cannot be taken as “contrary to their nature” (meaning contrary to their nature as heterosexuals, but not contrary if they were by nature homosexual) for at least eight reasons:
- We have no evidence that homosexuality is an inborn trait and thus would be natural to men or women.
- We do have evidence that homosexual behavior often comes about because of certain cultural experiences.
- To insert such a reading would betray the obvious argument that Paul is building from the created order.
- The phrase “contrary to nature” was found in Greek and Jewish literature which Paul would have read and which had a very obvious and consistent rendering as shown above.
- Paul’s use of such a phrase would have been familiar to his audience, who would have seen the same argument used in Plato, Ovid, and Lucian. It had a defined meaning and his audience would have known that.
- Such a reading would lead to more confusion of his audience since the default position of the early Christians, the Rabbis, and even Hellenistic Jews was that homosexuality of any stripe was a sin.
- The verse gives no indication that homosexual behavior of any kind is allowed or acceptable, though Paul would have been familiar with ideas like “male homosexuality, lesbianism, the claims of some to be born as a willing mate of a man, the concept of mutuality, permanency, gay pride, pederasty, ‘homophobia,’ motive, desire, passion, etc” (White, The Same-Sex Controversy) and had he [or the Holy Spirit who inspired the text] so desired, he would have certainly been more clear,
- The universal witness of the Early Church, including the Greek and Latin Apologists, the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Church Fathers, and all of Christianity up until the sexual revolution when idolatry once again gloriously reared its ugly head in Western Civilization, suggests that this reading is not in line with Paul’s intentions or those of the Holy Spirit who inspired the text.
So, in conclusion to this rather lengthy post, let me say that it seems unlikely that Paul meant to do anything other than indict the practice of homosexuality as sinful behavior to be rejected by Christians. There is no evidence that can be presented that overrides the testimony of 2000 years of Church History to this passage of Scripture. The burden of proof lies in the hands of those who desire to revise the historical view of the Church and the natural reading of the text. Today, as in the days of Paul, Christians everywhere should reject homosexuality as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith and teach that such a practice is against the natural function and design of human beings, which God our Great Creator gave to us. God’s design from the beginning was for marriage to exist between a man and a woman, producing children and exhibiting the glory of God by being an example of Christ and His Bride, the Church of Jesus Christ. Let me close by offering Paul’s words in Romans 11:33-36:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
Bible, Christianity, Culture, Evangelicalism, Homosexuality, Liberalism, Ministry, Truth