This is being written as a comment to post at The Cloak Room in response to a commenter there.
So, what is going on and who is being spoken to and about in Romans 1? The book was written as a letter by Paul somewhere between 54 to 58 AD while he was living in Corinth. It was carried by Priscilla to the church in Rome; Paul would not even visit Rome himself for another five years. The letter was written about twenty five years after the death of Jesus. Amongst the one million people in Rome were: Jews, Jews who had converted to Christianity and Gentiles who had converted to Christianity. Jerusalem was about 1,500 miles away, a fair distance for a church plant.
It is believed that both Jews and converted Jews were meeting in the same synagogues and competing for voice and space in the time following the death of Christ. They were arguing and fighting (just as they did back in Jerusalem.) Discussions and tensions over observances of the Law, what to eat, what not to eat and controversy over inclusion of Gentiles escalated to great distur-bances amongst the Jews and Jewish Christians. The on-going fighting resulted in the issuance of the Claudian Edict of 49 AD. Jews, converted Jewish Christians and Gentiles “that lived as Jewish Christians ” were expelled from Rome. This left behind the Gentile converts that were meeting in house churches. The remnant was the weakest of the believers. These were the ones who remained in Rome. These were the ones spoken to and of in Romans 1:18-32.
So imagine, both your family and the ancestors before you had participated in idolatry and god worship and you have now converted to this religion of one God with all new ways of approaching Him. Your spiritual leaders had been evicted from the city and you had been trying to live out this one-God faith in the midst of many-gods Rome. It would be easy to slip back into the old ways?
Traditional worship and cultural behaviors in Rome clashed with the expectations of the believers in the newly introduced Christianity. Romans deified more than 20 types of gods, goddesses and spirits. They worshiped natural things-animals and trees, gods and godesses, State leaders and they were tolerant of other cultural influences from Greek and Egyptian spiritual practices. Idolatry, indecency and other acts socially unacceptable to a Jew were common within the Roman society.
Verse 26 we quote as condemnation on lesbians. But is it? The people being spoken to and about had known God; they were without excuse, they had experienced conversion. Now, they were worshiping nature, natural things and the gods of the State again. They were involved (again) in idol worship and some of it had sexual expressions. They also participated in culturally acceptable practices to a Roman, but, not to a Jewish Christian. It was what they had known before. They lacked the modeling and support of the converted Jews and the stronger Gentile Christians who had been evicted.
Because of this, God gave them over to their own desires. What is the “this“? What were they doing that forced a Holy God to let go of them? They had turned from God, having known Him, and returned to their idolatrous worship. Because they had known God and turned their back on Him and returned to pagan worship, God let them go.
And what kinds of actions were they doing once they turned back to their old ways? The Word says women had exchanged the natural use of their body for an unnatural use. Please look at the verse for yourself. Does it say women were having sex with women? It could mean that, but it simply says women were doing something unnatural with their bodies. Remember this was Paul writing and it is his view as a Jewish convert as to what is unnatural or beyond the ordinary. It could have been sex with other women, sex during menstruation, oral sex or sex with an uncircumcised man. Any or all of those. All of these behaviors were “unnatural” to a Jewish Christian.
Maybe you still dont’ get that the crux of the sentencing that follows is turning from God after professing Him. If we reduce the verses to what the traditional view is, let’s look at the words and see if just the actions of men having sex with men, or women having sex with women is enough to garner God’s eternal damnation. Some Bibles will translate “shameful lusts” as “vile affections” and that does sound bad. You can only get a better concept of this by looking at original language and not translations. “Vile” comes from the Greek word “atimai” which means infamy, indignity, dishonor, reproach and shame and we further see that it is subjective. That seems interesting, why is that subjective?
When I go swimming in my Speedo, this is acceptable where I live in the US (but trust me, I won’t put you through that). Would this same behavior be acceptable in some cultures in the Middle East? No, it would be considered “atimai”/vile in that culture. In our culture, women cover their breasts, not so in others. This is the word atimai/vile. Atimai actions are not deal killers to God, they are practices which are culturally unacceptable. Paul is making commentary on what is culturally unacceptable in his time and his culture as a Jew. If we are to hold onto the concept of Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, we must be consistent. Did the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to use the word “atimai” meaning culturally unacceptable? So, again, was same sex sex the deal breaker with God? I do not see that it was. It was shameful and culturally unacceptable to Paul.
What was the deal breaker? Having known God and turning from Him. We read in Matthew 12 and in Mark 3 that the only action that earns absolute cutting off from God is to permanently reject the Holy Spirit. So, once you know who He is and you turn your back on Him and reject Him in finality, God lets you go. These new Gentile converts knew God, knew the Spirit and went back to the old patterns of worship and behavior. That was the ultimate “sin” in God’s assessment via Paul. Behaving shamefully (the writer’s cultural evalutation) may have caused Paul to tisk-tisk, but, he did not say that cultural behavior was the reason God let go of them.
Let’s get to women using their bodies unnaturally. Can unnatural use of a body be the thing that cuts you off from God eternally? Original language is again the key. “Natural use” and “against nature” are fairly simple on the reading in English. “Natural use” is “phusikos chre?sis“, an instinctive use and in this case, an instinctive sexual use. Further, it means what is consistent, expected, ordinary and usual. When someone behaves in a “natural” way, they are being consistent with what you, or in this case, the writer, would expect. Does that mean behaving in “unnatural” way is then wrong, immoral or sinful? We can get more clarity by going deeper into verse 26 to the words “against nature”. “Against nature” is “para phusis” or contrary to the usual, natural, expected way. Men with long hair in the times of Paul were not only “unnatural” / “para phusis“, but vile/” atimia ” as well. Same words.
People know and quote that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Then let Him be. He did not have Paul to tell us that people involved in same sex relationships based on love are going to hell. What He did have Paul say is that people that once knew Him and had now turned from Him are permanently separated from Him. No matter how much we dislike a behavior according to our own valuations, we do not get to change the words to mean what we want them to say. And we do not get to settle on what we believe them to say without study. If we are calling ourselves believers and followers, we are trying to view things through God’s eyes, not our own. Putting our cultural slants, societal prejudices and dislikes on a group is quite human, but to label that judgment as if it is God’s scales of justice is going beyond the scope of Scripture.
So what about Romans 1:27 and 28? The same word “natural” is used again. Now with understanding gained above, these verses can be written in common language to say “And just as the women who once made a profession of Christ and now have returned to their pagan gods and are behaving impurely, the men have also returned to their idols and are also using their bodies in culturally unaccepted ways for a believer. Men are no longer having regular coitus with women and are they are having sex with men.” To the Jew, there were prescribed intentions in sex. It was between a man and a woman and it was normal coitus. Not so in the Roman culture of the day. There was a strict order of hierarchy within sexual activities of adult Roman citizens. They could have penetrative sex with women, male and female slaves or non-citizens and with youth. The only unacceptable sex with in that society was male sex between citizens of equal social class. That was the culture of that time and that place. The Gentile converts had reverted back to their old social norms. Again, this is a subjective view Paul is taking.The language is subjective. It is a purity issue to Paul.
How do we know that the sexual acts were not seen as sin? Paul could have placed that value on the acts by using the same words that he did when he spoke of people turning their backs on God and going back to their old gods. He had already used words for sin, notice the stronger words in verse 18 for “godlessness and wickedness” used when describing people who “suppressed the truth.” Those words are asebia and adikia which both mean something behaviorally wrong, sin. The word adikia will be used again in verse 29 for “wickedness.”
So, even with Paul’s cultural bent against male-male sex and non coitus female sex, he labels it outside the range of the expected and impure, but, he does not put it in the same class as turning from God, which is sin. Confirmed in Matthew 12 and Mark 3, having known God and rejected Him is the unforgivable sin.
A complete reading of these passages, in their original context, clearly shows that what Paul was actually referring to was homosexual temple prostitution, which was performed by various cults (though far more cults used heterosexual prostitution). Again, Paul is not referring to same-sex love, and he clearly has no concept of persons for whom this lifestyle is “natural.”
Paul’s other reference to homosexual acts in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is similar to 1 Timothy 1:8-11.
These two passages contain lists of persons to be excluded from the Realm of God. The interpretation of these passages depends on two Greek words that have always presented a problem for translators. In the King James Version, they are translated “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” In the Revised Standard Version, they were combined and rendered as “homosexuals,” however, these are not the Greek words for homosexual, so these translations reflect the scholars’ bias. The New International Version illustrates the difference in these two words by translating them “male prostitute” and “homosexual offenders.” The Jerusalem Bible uses the terms “catamites and “sodomites.” Catamites were youth kept especially for sexual purpose, who were usually paid large sums of money. Neither passage refers to persons of same-sex orientation but to people who used their sexuality for personal gain.