What does Romans 1 say?
Romans 1:18–27 contains the most apparently unequivocal condemnations of homosexuality in the New Testament. In this chapter, Paul says that when people have rejected the teachings of God, God in turn “gave them over to shameful lusts.” He writes further:
“Even the women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
In letters attributed to Paul, references to same-sex relationships have had many interpretations. Both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 use the term arsenokoites; its exact meaning is debated, but many twentieth-century scholars believed that it refers to men who have sex with other men. In Romans 1, however, Paul directly criticizes men who feel lust for and commit sex acts with other men. By linking verse 28 to verse 27 (“in the same way”), he also heavily implies that the women of verse 27 were likewise engaging in sex with people of the same gender.
The example of “unnatural” sexual relations contributes to the broader point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans: that the judgment of God falls upon all humankind, both Gentiles and Jews alike; that all are sinners except for Jesus; and that God offers a promise of forgiveness of sins to those who have faith.
What did the early Romans and Jews think about sex and gender?
For the Romans, sexuality and gender were closely intertwined. The Roman world accepted the existence of sex between men, as long as the type of sex and the people participating in it conformed to standards that did not upset “normal” power dynamics. When a man had sex with another man, it said nothing to the Romans about his sexuality and everything about his masculinity. To penetrate was masculine, and to be penetrated was feminine—and to be female, or feminine, was to exist in a dramatically inferior social position.
To complicate matters further, Paul writes not only from the perspective of a Roman citizen, but from that of a devout Jew. Modern scholars do not have the same number of resources in regards to first-century Jewish practice as they do for Roman practices, which makes it harder to speak with authority about Roman Jews’ understanding of what same-sex relations meant and if/when/why they were wrong or undesirable. The first-century Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria condemned sex between men, which he considered unnatural, effeminizing, and a threat to the successful propagation of the species (since he believed that men had a limited supply of semen). Other Jewish texts from this period also criticize sex between men, equating it with a variety of sins ranging from pedophilia to adultery to idolatry.
Paul says comparatively little about same-sex relations in his letters, and—as noted above—there isn’t much consistency in the rationales against same-sex behavior in existing texts from his contemporaries. One clue to Paul’s meaning in this passage from Romans is his use of the phrase para physin, which is variously translated as “against nature,” “beyond nature,” or “to the side of nature.” Some scholars, such as John Boswell, have argued that the passage does not condemn homosexuals at all, but rather heterosexuals who have abandoned their true “nature” to engage in homosexual acts. We must note that Paul did not have a working concept of “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”; the concept of an innate romantic and sexual orientation towards the same sex did not exist in that time period.
Other scholars argue that Paul simply meant unconventional, and that Paul’s criticism of the Gentiles’ sexual behavior here is of a piece with his criticism of their religious behavior: just as they have turned away from conventional religious practice, they have turned away from conventional sexual practice as well. Romans 11:23–4 is often quoted in support of this argument, in which an action of God is described as para physin:
And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature [para physin] were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
In other words, for Paul to describe a behavior as para physin is not in and of itself a condemnation.
If Paul—like his Jewish contemporaries, such as Philo of Alexandria—did simply consider it wrong for two men or two women to have sex with each other, it remains unclear why he condemns same-sex relations: Because the laws of Leviticus say so? Because it wastes semen? Because it disrupts traditional gender roles? Because it happens here in the context of idolatry?
Are Christians bound by Paul’s condemnation of same-sex relations?
While Paul may have been condemning same-sex behavior in this passage, it is important to distinguish this from condemnation of a same-sex orientation—a modern concept that would have been foreign to Paul and his contemporaries. Paul’s conception of gender, including sexual behavior, was informed by a deeply misogynistic society with rigidly entrenched gender roles. Some of these remain familiar to modern readers, and others—such as the emphasis on penetration as an expression of masculinity or femininity—are no longer relevant to today’s society. Just as modern Christians may ignore Paul’s belief that women should keep their hair covered, we may also believe that his judgments on sex between people of the same gender were a product of his society, rather than an integral part of a Christian system of belief.
The broader point Paul is making here often gets lost in debates about homosexuality. In the book of Romans, Paul reminds his fellow Christians that they are all sinners. Rather than waste their time in passing judgment on those around them—which Paul emphasizes is hypocritical, given that anybody who issues such a condemnation is themself guilty of sin too—Christians should hold themselves accountable for their own behavior. Paul reminds the church in Rome: “Whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).
“Introduction to Romans 1:26–27.” ReligiousTolerance.org.
Dan Wilkinson, “A Gay Pastor Explains What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality”
Dr. James Brownson, “Romans 1:24-27” (two-part video)
Queer Theology, “How do you justify Romans?” (podcast)
Bruce L. Gerig, “The Clobber Passages: Reexamined”
Bill White, LGBTQ Conversations, “Best Progressive Arguments on Romans 1” (2017)
Whosoever, “Bible and Homosexuality: Romans 1:26” (2014)
J. R. Daniel Kirk, “Paul, Patriarchy, and Homosexuality” (2015)
Dave Earp, “Romans 1 Exegesis”
Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, Neither Judgement Nor Condemnation: Reading Again The Biblical Text on Homosexuality
Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (2015)
William Loader, Sexuality and the New Testament (2010)
Diana Swancutt, “‘The Disease of Effemination’: The Charge of Effeminacy and the Verdict of God,” New Testament Masculinities, edited by Stephen D. Moore (2004)