Part 9: Listening to God's Word: St. Paul's Letter to the Romans
The following is the eighth in a series on Homosexuality and God's Merciful Love. You can follow the entire series here.
As we said last time, it is St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans who speaks in greater depth about homosexuality than any other biblical author. Please read the following passage slowly and prayerfully, because we are going to need to unpack its meaning with great care:
The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God, they did not accord him glory as God, or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.
Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshipped the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity (Rom 1:18-27).
This passage cannot be explained away merely as a condemnation of adults who have sex with youth (a common practice in the ancient world), because St. Paul speaks here of same-sex relationships among women as well as among men, and we have no record of same-sex intimacy between adult women and young girls in the ancient world. In fact, there is no mention of, or even allusion to, pederasty anywhere in these verses.
Some scholars claim that St. Paul is merely objecting here to the homosexual practices of pagan idol worshippers (e.g. in the sexual orgies involved in some of their religious rituals) — it has nothing to do with contemporary, loving and committed same-sex relationships, especially as found among believing Christians. Just from reading the English translation of the passage, however, we can clearly see that this is not what St. Paul was trying to say. His argument was not "look how awful homosexual practices become in the context of idol-worship," but "idolatry, worshipping creatures rather than the Creator, leads to unnatural and degrading behavior, such as homosexual acts."
Kevin DeYoung gives us an excellent summary of St. Paul's overall argument in the first chapter of Romans:
In Paul's mind, same-sex intimacy is an especially clear illustration of the idolatrous human impulse to turn away from God's order and design. Those who suppress the truth about God as revealed in nature suppress the truth about themselves written in nature. Homosexual practice is an example on the horizontal plane of our vertical rebellion against God (DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?, p. 52).
Unfortunately, some Bible commentators continue to concoct new and clever ways to try to weasel out of St. Paul's teaching here. For example, Peter Fitch wrote:
The homosexuality that Paul is writing about [in Romans] ... refers to heterosexual people who are pressing past their intuitive sexual orientation in order to strive for greater and greater sensual experience. ... There is nothing being said here that relates to loving and faithful unions among the minority of people around the world who are same-gender attracted (Interpreting Toward Love, pp. 63 and 66).
This is far from convincing.
(1) It is an argument from silence — which is usually considered a weak argument, if made to stand all by itself. Fitch basically says that if Paul does not explicitly discuss "loving and faithful" homosexual relationships, then we cannot say for sure he is condemning them. But that is a logical non-sequitur, for Paul could be objecting to them implicitly as part of a general rejection of a broader category behavior. What Paul explicitly states in the text is that those who worship creatures end up falling into "degrading passions" which result in "unnatural," same-sex unions. Is there anything in this text, or any other, that suggests that St. Paul believed that same-sex unions in some circumstances could be "natural" and wholesome? Evidently not.
(2) There is also plenty of evidence in this passage that St. Paul would rule out any distinction between natural and unnatural homosexuality. For example, he uses two words here that are somewhat uncommon terms for men and women in Greek ("arsenes" and "theleias"), words that emphasize the biology, of being male and female. Thus, St. Paul seems to be objecting to what is biologically unnatural in what the pagans are doing; he is not referring to people's "intuitive sexual orientation," or their inclinations on a psychological level.
(4) Moreover, in an important scholarly essay, Richard Hays provided evidence that the contrast between "natural" ("kata physin") and "unnatural" ("para physin") in this biblical passage was also common among the Greek and Roman philosophers of St. Paul's day, terms they used to distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual behavior, often describing all homosexual behavior as "para physin," just as St. Paul does (See Richard Hays, "A Response to John Boswell's Exegesis of Romans 1" in Journal of Religious Ethics, Spring, 1986; also his The Moral Vision of the New Testament. T and T Clark, 1996, pp. 383-389).
(5) Furthermore, the fact that, according to St. Paul, these men were "burning in lust" for each other makes it highly unlikely that they were males of a heterosexual orientation simply seeking to broaden their sexual experience. Their behavior was born of intense inner desire. Suggesting, as Fitch and others do, that these men were actually heterosexuals indulging in homosexual behavior, seems quite far-fetched.
(6) The Fathers and saints of the Church — that is, those discerned by the Body of Christ to be full-to-overflowing with the Spirit of Truth and Love — also interpreted Romans as teaching a general condemnation of homosexual behavior as unnatural. For example, in his Homilies on Romans, St. John Chrysostom says that all the affections referred to in Romans 1:26-27 "were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases. ... [The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And yet a more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men."
At one point in his book, Fitch wrote that "Given the worldview and assumptions of ancient societies, it may not even have been possible for people to entertain such a thought [that is, the thought that same-sex relationships could be natural, faithful, and loving, p.66]." Fitch's argument is that St. Paul cannot be held to be condemning a kind of homosexual relationship of which he was completely unaware. It is only in modern times that people have recognized the possibility of lifelong, committed same-sex relationships ... right?
The idea of adult, mutually consented homosexual relationships was not foreign to the Greco-Roman world of St. Paul's day (as even gay Christian historian John Boswell has admitted), including the idea that some people are born gay. DeYoung provides us with a good run-down of the evidence about ancient attitudes toward homosexuality:
Anyone can explore the primary sources in Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents. This 558 page book is edited by the non-Christian classics professor Thomas K. Hubbard. What you'll find in the sourcebook is not surprising given the diversity and complexity of the ancient world. ... There was no more consensus about homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome than we see today. ... [B]ut there is also plenty of evidence to prove that homosexuality was not restricted to man-boy pairs. Some homosexual lovers swore continued attraction well into their loved one's adulthood, and some same-sex lovers were lifelong companions. By the first century A.D., the Roman Empire was increasingly divided on the issue of homosexuality (DeYoung, p. 83).
In any case, the underlying moral principle that St. Paul used in Romans — his appeal to what is biologically natural to men and women — makes his objection to all same-sex unions inevitable. In other words, it is logically implicit in his thought that all homosexual relationships are at least to some extent "unnatural."
As Christians, we turn to Holy Scripture in order to listen to what God wants to say to us about how we ought to live our lives. Indeed, our Creator has revealed thru the Bible basic principles about how to live according to His wise design and good purposes for us: a divine plan that, if followed, leads to peace of heart, and authentic human flourishing. Beyond any reasonable doubt, God has told us in Holy Scripture, especially in Romans 1, that same-sex relationships cannot be, in the full sense, a "loving" thing for two people to engage in because they are not in accord with His design, and therefore to varying degrees they are unnatural and even degrading. It can even jeopardize our salvation if we persist in such behavior (I Cor 6:9). The Bible does not tell us this because our heavenly Father is a strict, heartless Puritan, but because He knows and wants what is best for His children, in this life and the life to come.
We will need to explore in greater depth the biblical teaching about God's design for human nature and human sexuality — as well as what philosophy and the natural and social sciences have to say about it all. Suffice it to say here: Scripture is clear on the matter, and God speaks to us through his inspired Word out of his merciful and compassionate love for us, for our own good.
Next Week: God's Creation Blueprint for Human Sexuality
You can follow the entire series here.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.