Among the half dozen biblical clobber texts that appear, in modern interpretations, to condemn all same – sex relationships, perhaps the most difficult to counter is that in Romans 1:24-27. A reader, who in several comments recently has been critical of my posts about Mattew Vines and his book “God and the Gay Christian”, refers to this passage, asking:
How does Vines square his case for same-sex marriage with the New Testament condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm as unnatural in Romans 1:24-27?
I’ve already replied to my reader in the comments thread (here), with reference to Vines specifically, and with passing reference to some other useful commentary on the passage by others – but there’s much more to be said about this very badly misunderstood passage.
Let’s look at it now – and asses it against the Pontifical Biblical Commissions stated guidelines for biblical interpretation, before deciding whether my reader’s claim that this is a “condemnation of *all* sexual relationships outside of the male-female paradigm”.
Here’s the text, in the New Revised Standard Version (courtesy of Bible Gateway):
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
The recommendations of the Pontifical Biblical Commission deserve to be studied in full, but we have no space to do that here. Instead, I give only the bullet points with which I concluded my own summary of their recommendations
Biblical interpretation is tricky, and must be undertaken with care. Simplistic use of isolated texts is particularly dangerous.
No single approach is complete and sufficient to itself. To one degree or another, all have weaknesses., and so need to be used in combination.
Particular sections, let alone single verses, must be evaluated in the context of the entire passage, or even of Scripture as a whole.
Careful attention must be paid to the social and cultural conditions of the time, and to the precise linguistic meaning of the words used.
The techniques of literary and contextual analysis are useful in providing pastoral reflections appropriate for our conditions and oppression as LGBT Christians in the Church.
With reference to this particular passage, point 3 is especially important – the relevance of the passage as a whole. This is because it begins with a word, “Therefore”, which makes no sense at all when read as the start of a passage. It must be read as a consequence of what has gone before – and what is that?
After some introductory remarks at the opening of Romans 1, Paul writes in v 18 about some unspecified “ungodliness and wickedness” of those who suppress the truth. In vv 21 – 23, he gets down to brass tacks:
21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Whatever it is that is being condemned in passage as a whole, it is not the notorious vv 24:27. They are described as the consequence of what has gone before – idolatry. That is, because of their wickedness in not honoring their God, exchanging God’s glory for idolatrous images, they gave themselves up to degrading passions. What those degrading passions were, exactly, we’ll get to later. For now, we must continue to look at the passage as a whole – at what comes after, as well as what went before.
The concluding verses of Chapter 1 continue with a description of the consequences of a failure to acknowledge God, along with the degrading passions – and note that these are described as “degrading” passions, not inherently sinful ones.
That’s not the end of the passage though. The theologian James Alison has noted that the modern division of the Biblical texts into discrete chapters and verses is a relatively modern one. As originally written, it was a continuous text. To really get the sense of this passage, we need to continue, reading without a break into Chapter 2. Let’s do that now, passing directly to the opening of Chapter 2 – for the sucker punch (my emphasis, added):
2 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 You say,“We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3 Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
Those who are clearly being condemned in the passage taken as a whole, alongside the idolaters – are those who are so quick to condemn others.