Idol Worship and Rejection of God
In these verses, Paul condemns idol worshippers and God haters. According to Paul, these “God haters” experiment with gay sex only as a way of seeking new thrills or in cultic worship. Clearly, he is not speaking about modern, innately gay and lesbian people, who love God and want to honor God while living with integrity as who they are.
How Language Is Interpreted
If we want to interpret spoken or written statements accurately, we must carefully study the context in which the statements were made. Otherwise we can completely misunderstand what was intended. Theologians of all stripes (including the most fundamentalist) have long followed this rule when interpreting statements found in the Bible. “A text taken out of context is pretext.”
We are used to applying this principle in many biblical settings. For example, in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, the Apostle Paul says women should wear a veil when praying. He also says they should have long hair. Here are two rather simple, straightforward rules announced in the New Testament. How should we interpret them? Some Christians have tried to interpret them without any reference to the cultural context in which the Apostle Paul spoke. So they require their women to wear hats in church (a modern type of veil) and require them to maintain hair that is shoulder length or longer. But others who have studied the cultural context of this passage tell us that in Paul’s time only prostitutes wore short hair and appeared in public unveiled. If this is true, then the likely meaning of Paul’s ruling changes radically from an absolute command to one that was meant to address a problem unique to the culture of the time — women who wore short hair or appeared unveiled in public could easily be mistaken for prostitutes. Today, even most conservative Christians do not require their women to wear head coverings or to keep their hair long. They take this position even though the words of the Bible specifically say women should do so. They refrain from imposing these requirements because they understand that the meaning of words is determined largely by the context in which they are spoken.
As we now turn to Romans, we simply ask you to apply this same time-honored, common-sense approach.
Romans 1 may seem daunting when first approached because it is written in a rhetorical style most modern readers are not used to. Paul, the writer of Romans, was trained as a scholar of Greek classics and Hebrew literature, and his style may seem obscure to those of us who enjoy reading Dear Abby and USA Today. The pertinent passage reads as follows in the King James Version:
“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.” (Romans 1:21-28)
Though it may come as a surprise, we consider this to be the easiest of the clobber passages to interpret. This is because Paul, in his classically trained style, thoroughly explains the factual assumptions and rationale behind his condemnation of the behavior described here. This makes it easy for us to answer our question: Does this passage apply to inherently same-gender-attracted people who are living in loving, committed relationships?
If we follow the passage, step-by-step, we find Paul is moving through a logical progression. He is talking about people who:
- Refused to acknowledge and glorify God. (v. 21)
- Began worshipping idols (images of created things, rather than the Creator). (v. 23)
- Were more interested in earthly pursuits than spiritual pursuits. (v. 25)
- Gave up their natural, i.e., innate, passion for the opposite sex in an unbounded search for pleasure. (v. 26-27)
- Lived lives full of covetousness, malice, envy, strife, slander, disrespect for parents, pride, and hatred of God. (v. 29-31)
The model of homosexual behavior Paul was addressing here is explicitly associated with idol worship (probably temple prostitution, and with people who, in an unbridled search for pleasure (or because of religious rituals associated with their idolatry), broke away from their natural sexual orientation, participating in promiscuous sex with anyone available.
There are, no doubt, modern people who engage in homosexual sex for reasons similar to those identified in Romans 1. If someone began with a clear heterosexual orientation, but rejected God and began experimenting with gay sex simply as a way of experiencing a new set of pleasures, then this passage may apply to that person. But this is not the experience of the vast majority of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
But this is not the story of most LGBT individuals who know at an early age that they have an attraction to the same gender. Therefore, this passage is not intended to address homosexuality in the 21st century.