Note: this article was revised on November 18, 2011 to add clarity.
At the beginning of this series, I dared to ask the question, “Can a person be gay and a Christian.” Naturally, the first reaction by many sincere Christians is that “the Bible condemns homosexuality.” This series will continue to explore this very controversial issue in the light of Scripture. Since I asserted the whacky idea that the answer to the aforementioned question is, “yes,” it’s prudent to, as the Bereans did, “search the Scriptures to see if it’s so.”
There are six passages in Scripture that are used to support the traditional evangelical and fundamentalist view that homosexuality in any form is condemned outright. We will explore all of these passages at length and go into as much detail as possible so that we can begin to understand that some of us are not only gay, but clearly are embraced by God as his children, and are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This article skips past all of the passages in Genesis and Leviticus, and goes straight into Paul’s letter to the Romans.
One of the most apparently damning passages in the New Testament that are used to condemn gay and lesbian people is actually something entirely different. Romans chapter 1:26-27 are often used to say how bad off gay people really are:
“26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (NIV)”
It all sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? They’ve abandoned natural relations… and received the due penalty for their perversion. Yikes! But is it talking about Christians? What’s more important, is it talking about gay people? The answer to both questions is, “no.” Well, to be clear, he’s not talking to about Christians yet. Let’s look at the context. Why is that important? Well, it’s basic Bible interpretation…or rather, exegesis. “If there’s a “therefore,” find out what it’s there for.” The “because of this” in verse 26 clearly indicates that there’s more to it. It’s the continuation of a single thought. Let’s look back to the previous paragraph:
“24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (NIV)”
Now we’re seeing a bit more of the big picture, aren’t we? This is clearly not talking about Christians. Paul is talking about those who have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Verse 25 makes the point clear. They “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” But is Paul talking about same-sex relationships, or something else?
But what are those “created things?” Is it something God created or something that man created as images of deity? But let’s see if that holds true by going back another paragraph to verse 21:
“21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
Verse 23 is yet another statement that clearly discusses the worship of idols. “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” This is one of the most telling phrases in the entire passage. Paul is writing about men who claimed to be so wise that they became fools, and delved into idolatry. They didn’t glorify God and their hearts were darkened.
But wait. Gosh darn it. this paragraph starts with another “for.” Once again, this is a statement that is a continuation of a thought that Paul had already started:
“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Paul writes that men are “without excuse” because God’s truth had been made plain to them. Some suggest that he’s writing about Christians who had fallen away, while others might say that he’s just talking about pagans in general. Either way, from verse 18 to 27, it’s clear that the entire passage is a single continuous thought.
Reading this chapter requires a basic understanding of context. It’s very common and popular to rip out verses 26 and 27 to condemn homosexuality in general, but this isn’t what Paul is talking about. One might think that he’s doing the same thing that anti-gay activists do today; as if he would go on TV and blame a all-too-common gulf coast hurricane on the homosexuals, rather than the fact that hurricanes happen to form frequently in tropical waters.
By ripping these two verses out of their context, here’s what many modern Christian preachers and teachers are actually saying about Romans 1:
“God’s really ticked off about this idolatry thing. People don’t have much of an excuse either. They left the true faith and tipped over into worshiping images of men, birds, animals, and reptiles. Seriously! Reptiles! Not only that, they will obsess over sex and engage in fertility rites…
“And let me tell you about those awful homosexuals! They’re really bad news. They’re just chasing after each other an’ all sorts of things. Those terrible, lust-driven homosexuals!
“Now… what was I talking about? Oh yeah. Those idolaters. Stupid idolaters….”
Yes, this is a little simplistic, but the simple fact of the matter is that Paul does NOT change his thoughts as he writes this. The book of Romans is completely eloquent, and is clear that Paul is writing a very carefully thought-out epistle. He’s not writing as if he’s hacked off (like he did to the Corinthians) and he’s not complaining about activities in churches he started — this is an epistle that was designed to teach, and provides some of the basis for core tenets of the faith.
To suggest that Paul just goes off on a verbal gay bash for two or three sentences in the middle of an intense discussion on idolatry defies the very logic and literature that is the book of Romans. The simple, obvious logic is this: the “gay-bashing” verses are about the pagan practices in temple rites. In short, it’s a continuation on the discussion of idolatry and fertility rites, which were common in those days. The context in Romans 1:18-27 is clearly about idolatry, and offers a much greater “big picture” than simply discussing sexual acts.
There’s more to the story.
If you’re not sure whether or not this can relate to Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation, let’s look at the handful of verses after verse 27:
“28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (NIV)”
The “big picture” is even bigger with this paragraph. Again, this is a continuation of the thought. This entire chapter is referring to a group of people who once had the knowledge of God, but have become “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.” Verse 30 and 31 slammed them even more and finally called such people “ruthless.”
Now, ask yourself this simple question: Can we seriously believe that this chapter addresses Christians who might be gay? To be fair, I know a lot of gossips too, but this kind of depravity is clearly in reference to a people who have rejected everything holy in the name of their own false idols.
Let’s get a little close to home. If Paul wasn’t talking about Christians in the early part of Chapter 1, he certainly is now. He clearly knew when he wrote this passage that it would sting some of the people who were reading it. After all, gossips and backbiters were everywhere, even in the church. So what did he have to say about that? Let’s read on starting in Chapter 2:
“1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3 So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? (NIV)”
Chapter 1 reads like a list of “wherefores” in a presidential or mayoral proclamation. Chapter 2 is the proclamation itself. In verses 1 through 4, Paul finally makes his point.
Every single verse in Romans 1 leads up to this declaration in the first paragraph of chapter 2.
Here, Paul echoes Jesus’ words on judgment from Matthew 7. Paul completely turns this whole idolater-bashing passage on its heels and directs it toward the Christians in Rome: “because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Does he know today’s church or what?
So, in a nutshell, Paul is addressing a few issues. One, he’s blasting the Roman Christians who pass judgment on others for doing the very things they do themselves. Two, he’s establishing the platform to discuss the riches of God’s kindness and His grace.
The reality is that none of the verses in Romans 1 or 2 can exist in a vacuum, and must be taken with the whole. Most people who are struggling with their sexual orientation take Romans 1:26-28 by themselves (as they’re often told to do) and look for ways to try to fix themselves. But as Scripture says, there is clearly a more excellent way. Clearly, this passage is talking about hypocritical behavior (as Jesus often did), not homosexuals.
The first thing we must do if we’re gay or if we know someone who is; is that we can not condemn ourselves or others based on that fact. There are other Scriptures which are often used as “clobber verses” but none of them are as apparently clear as the Romans 1 passage is. Even then, the literary context of those three verses changes everything.
Those of us who are gay and Christian have a number of issues that we must deal with; including whether or not we’re going to pursue a relationship with someone. Since those issues are as complex as they are vast in numbers, They will be covered in later articles. Next week, we’ll go back in time to ancient Sodom. Get those asbestos suits ready!
Note: This is the introduction of a special series on The Bible and Homosexuality. The links below are other installments:
- Part 1: Can a person be gay and a Christian?
- Part 2: Exploring Romans 1:26-27
- Part 3: What was Sodom & Gomorrah all about?
- Part 4: All those abominations! Leviticus uncovered
- Part 5: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10…who inherits the Kingdom?
- Part 6: David & Jonathan
- Part 7: Other Biblical stories of note
- Part 8: How then shall we live?