In a separate social media post regarding sources of hope and support within Church history for LGBTQ+ people, I was pointed by a commenter to Romans 1:26-27 as proof that, no matter how much we may wish it otherwise, homosexual relationships are categorically forbidden, with no exception or distinction given to committed, monogamous same-sex relationships and marriages.
Here’s those two verses: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their 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.”
These two isolated verses are one of several similarly prooftexted passages used to condemn LGBTQ+ people, and one of the primary scriptural snippets that make young LGBTQ+ people feel irrevocably torn between their love of God and the very nature God gave them. But that conclusion only stands if we ignore the scriptural and social context of Paul’s wider passage on this issue. I argue this passage, in its total context, and within the entire message of the Gospel, is actually one of the clearest indicators that Paul’s letter DOES draw a distinction between the same-sex acts referenced in Romans 1, and any same-sex relationship based on mutual love.
First, we have to remember what we call the Bible is a collection of books and letters that originally had no chapters and verses. We added the chapter and verse divisions later to make it easy to cite certain passages — or, unfortunately, to see small bits of scripture as standalone passages that can possibly be read correctly outside their surrounding verses, social context, the text as a whole, and, perhaps most importantly, the ongoing revelation of God’s message through the Holy Spirit.
To really understand what Paul is getting at here, within the immediate scriptural context alone, we have to start at least as far back as Romans 1:18 and continue at least through 2:16 (remember, chapter divisions are arbitrary). Within these bounds, Paul begins by pointing out humanity has known God since Creation, without ever knowing any religion or creed: we knew God through Creation, seeing God’s “eternal power and divine nature” through the icon of Their Creation. God is Love, and the human understanding of that nature precedes religion and creed. But, he continues, addressing his audience in Rome in particular, humanity eventually lost sight of God THROUGH Creation, and began to worship physical, created things INSTEAD OF God (this is the important distinction between icons and idols).
So, Paul is talking here about creating false gods out of the things God created. Then, he follows immediately with this question of “shameful lusts.” This isn’t even an implication: it’s a direct and explicit line of thought — folks in Rome have been making gods (both in a figurative sense and in literal temple worship) of sexual lust. The sexual desires and acts themselves are not at issue. God created sex, sexual desire, trees, dogs, bumblebees and so on. God created them all, and we can see and come closer to God through all these, and all of Creation. But, if we make a god of sex, or dogs, trees, or bumblebees, and begin to see these created things INSTEAD OF the Creator, we’ve wandered the wrong way across the line between icon and idol.
The issue here isn’t the plumbing involved in any given sex act. The issue is entirely about whether or not we are using God’s created gifts against the true nature of God, which we have known since the beginning, which is Love. Does this act advance the presence of Love in the world? If yes, then it is righteous, ie “natural.” If it diminishes love in the world, it is unrighteous, or “unnatural.” (It doesn’t either advance or diminish Love? I call this the Meh Zone. We’re animals acting like animals, neither striving toward nor forsaking our divine potential)
“But Paul explicitly refers to women having sex with women, and men having sex with men!” Yes, Paul talks explicitly here about same-sex intercourse. “Egad Ma! Go git yer clutchin’ pearls!” And, Paul uses the word “unnatural” here. But, context, context, context. Paul uses the same term “unnatural” for long-haired men (see ANY traditional depiction of Jesus) because it was contrary to the immediate social context — not because there was any universal and eternal condemnation of guys with great hair (or even mullets). Paul also uses the “natural” vs. “unnatural” distinction to refer to God’s eternal and universal ethic of Love — two different things, often aligned, sometimes not.
In this passage from Romans, Paul is speaking directly to a Roman audience that saw it as a social norm for both husbands and wives to secretly indulge their sexual lusts through adultery with slaves (often children), prostitutes, and in ritualized temple sex. While these acts may have been “natural” in their contemporary social context, they were entirely “unnatural” because they attacked the law of Love through the full range from deceit to rape. Paul himself may have (likely) viewed homosexual relationships, even committed ones, as outside the “natural” social order (like guys with long hair, or women without head coverings). But, the eternal “natural” order Paul is talking about is defined solely by that earlier definition — it is natural if it aligns with the love God imprinted on our hearts from the beginning, for God IS Love.
Toward the end of Romans 1, Paul gives us one of his lovely all-encompassing sin lists (meant to show that we all fall in there somewhere, not to create renewed legalism), then continues immediately in Ch. 2 to warn against judging anyone, lest we condemn ourselves. And, finally, Paul reminds us that, even if we do not know what the law is (and Jesus told us it’s love), we are still living by the law if we live according to its message (which is Love). Have a question about following God’s law? Just see where it falls — inside or outside the bounds of Love. The same-sex relationships in Romans 1 fall outside those bounds because their intent and execution were based on lechery, deceit, exploitation and rape. Committed, loving, same-sex couples founded on and lived according to love? These are entirely separate from Paul’s concerns in Romans 1, and are, in fact, entirely within the universal knowledge of God, who is Love, for “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.”