Some people use Romans Chapter 1 to say that homosexuality is sinful and homosexuals are bad. However, the facts are as follows:
SEX BETWEEN FEMALES
Romans 1 contains the only reference in the Bible to females having sex with females. The reference is part of Paul’s illustration showing how rejection of God can lead to people doing foolish things.
The New International Version translates Romans 1:26 as:
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.
A more literal [and expanded] interpretation of this verse is:
For this reason [honoring and serving created things rather than the Creator] God gave them up [gave the individuals freedom to go their own way] to dishonorable or shameful passions for even their females changed or exchanged the natural [sexual] use [of the male] into that [use which is] against or contrary to nature;
What form of female sexual activity is described in this verse?
This verse (Romans 1:26) states that the women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations.
While the unnatural sexual relations (literally, use against nature) involving females could be male-female anal or oral intercourse, it is unlikely to be so because in Paul’s culture such activity was not considered as unnatural.
On the other hand, same-sex activity between females was thought of as unnatural in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s time because such activity involved one of the women having an active penetrative role (like a man) in contravention of the cultural view that women should always be passive in sex.
It is therefore likely that the female acts criticized are anal or vaginal intercourse between females in which one female penetrates another with a finger or other instrument. It could also involve the mutual rubbing of the genital organs.
What points favor Romans 1:26 referring to sex between females?
Same-sex activity between females was thought of as unnatural in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s time because such activity involved one of the women having an active penetrative role, thus acting like a man. This contravened the cultural view that only men should be the penetrators and women should always be passive in sex. Paul and his audience shared this cultural view.
Many ancient Greek and Roman non-Christian authors depicted sexual relations between females as unnatural. The authors include Plato, Seneca the Elder, Martial, Ovid, Ptolemy, Artimedorus, Pseudo-Phocylides. For details see Chapters 2, 4 and 6 of Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, 1996.
The use of likewise or in the same way in verse 27 means that same-sex activity is referred to in both verse 27 and verse 26.
Anal intercourse between women and men generally carried no stigma in ancient Roman society. No known ancient source explicitly describes anal intercourse between women and men as unnatural. Therefore Paul would have no reason to call male-female anal intercourse unnatural.
To illustrate one of the consequences of people refusing to glorify God, Paul chose the most outrageous form of female sexual behavior in his culture, i.e. females taking the active penetrative role.
The early Christian writer, St. John Chrysostom (Homily 4 on the Epistle to the Romans) (about 400 CE), considered that Paul was referring to female same-sex intercourse.
Verses 26 and 27 are an example of parallelism, where the second verse repeats and extends the meaning of the first.
What points favor Romans 1:26 referring to male-female anal sex?
The use of likewise or in the same way in verse 27 means that the act of anal intercourse is referred to in both verse 27 (between males only) and verse 26 (between males and females).
Although verse 26 says that women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones, it does not say that their male partners were exchanged for female partners. It is only an assumption that their partners were exchanged. By contrast, verse 27 does say that males exchanged their female partners for male partners.
The early Christian writers, Clement of Alexandria (The Instructor 2.10.86-87) (about 200 CE), Anastasius and Augustine (Marriage and Desire 20.35) (both around 400 CE), considered that Paul was referring to non-procreative, male-female anal intercourse.
What does Paul mean by “nature” in Romans 1:26?
Verse 26 states that the women exchanged natural sexual relations [literally, the natural use] for unnatural sexual relations [literally, use against nature].
The question of what Paul means by nature in verse 26 is important because some people argue that Paul intended nature to mean God’s plan for the world (including sex roles) as at Creation and that rejection of God expresses itself in rejection of God’s design for male and female sexual roles. In other words, Paul’s describing female-female sex as against nature (and his use of likewise extends that to male-male sex in the next verse) would mean that such types of sex are wrong.
However this interpretation is incorrect. First note that there is no gender or sexual use of nature, natural or unnatural in the Bible except in this passage (Romans 1: 26-27) and in 1 Corinthians 11:14 (implying that it is unnatural for men to have long hair but natural for women).
Both passages refer to gender (male and female) roles and both follow allusions to the Creation (Romans 1:20, 23 and 25 and 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 and 12). Despite these allusions to the Creation in the Corinthians passage, nature in that passage clearly means custom in Paul’s Greco-Roman culture.
Now what are the allusions to the Creation in the Romans passage? Verse 20 says that God's qualities have been seen since the creation of the world (stating a time period), verse 23 refers to images made to look like man and birds and animals and reptiles (showing the comprehensive nature of the images or idols), verse 25 talks about people worshipping created things rather than the Creator (emphasizing the difference between the types of things worshipped), and verses 26 and 27 refer to males and females (indicating that males and females of all ages are included, not just adult men and women).
Note that the Romans passage does not refer to the Creation events of male and female persons being created, their sex roles, or marriage between a man and a woman.
Therefore it is logical to assume that despite the allusions to the Creation in the Romans passage, nature in that passage refers to custom in Paul’s culture just as it did in the Corinthians passage. In other words, what is natural for Paul is determined by what he saw as customary in his culture, not by reference to the creation order.
The conclusion that nature refers to custom in Paul’s culture is reinforced by a detailed analysis of the text, which shows that Paul referred to male-female sex as natural relations (v 26 & 27) and sex between females as unnatural relations (v 26) but he did not refer to sex between males (v 27) as unnatural relations. It seems that Paul did not use unnatural for sex between males because such use would only have covered passive sex acts in which the males acted contrary to their expected roles in society, and he wanted to cover both active and passive sex acts between males. This indicates that Paul was using natural and unnatural to refer to his culture and not the creation order.
What is the meaning of “natural relations” and “unnatural relations”
The passage talks about women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (literally, females exchanged the natural use [of the male] into that [use which is] against nature). It also talks about men abandoned natural relations with women (literally, males having left the natural use of the female). In the context of natural meaning customary (usual) in the culture, natural use of the male (or female) means sexual (vaginal) intercourse between males and females.
For the same reason, unnatural or against nature refers to what is not customary in Paul’s culture and unnatural relations are any sex acts which are contrary to custom in his culture.
Who is referred to in Romans 1:26?
While not totally clear, it seems that Paul is referring to groups of people (or even a society) who have changed the way they express themselves sexually. Nevertheless people do act sexually as individuals and therefore many individual women must have changed from having sex with males to having sex with females. This change may have been temporary for same-sex orgiastic idol worship in Roman temples (women having sex with temple priestesses then later having sex with their husbands) or it could have been permanent (women giving up sex with their husbands and having sex only with other women).
Why does Paul mention sex between females at all?
Paul’s reference to sex between females is part of his “sermon” illustration showing how rejection of God can lead to people doing foolish things. This form of sexual activity seems to have been chosen as an example because it was a very shameful activity in Paul’s culture.
An alternative explanation in this article posits that Paul’s mostly illiterate Roman audience often inaccurately remembered traditional stories. They remembered the attempted same-sex actions of the men of Sodom and recalled Ezekiel’s six references (chapter 16) to the daughters of Sodom, mistakenly assuming that the women of Sodom also had same-sex activity. As they were illiterate, they could not read to correct their mistaken assumption. Paul would know of this tradition and used it in his argument in Romans 1.
Summary of Paul’s criticism of sex between females
It has been shown that the sexual activity referred to in Romans 1:26 is most probably sex between females.
Although Paul criticized sex between females by calling it shameful lusts and unnatural, he did not forbid it here or anywhere else in his speeches or letters. However both Paul and his Roman audience believed that sex between females was unnatural and should not be indulged in, mainly because their culture thought it wrong for a female to act like a male during such sex.
What does the criticism of sex between females mean for women who are attracted to other women?
If a woman is attracted to or loves other women without having sex with them, the criticism of sex between females is irrelevant.
What does the criticism of sex between females mean for women who have sex with other women?
The criticism of sex between females can be ignored by same-sexually active women today for the following reasons:
This criticism of sex between females is not a moral principle as it does not have the essential criterion of being prescriptive (a command). That is, the Bible doesn’t ever say don’t do it.
The criticism of sex between females as unnatural is not drawn from the Old Testament laws. Instead the criticism is mainly based on the gender-role culture* of Paul’s time (i.e. a woman should not act like a man during sex) and this is irrelevant to modern cultures.
As the criticism is mainly based on culture now irrelevant, it does not apply today as doctrine. This conclusion derives from Elliott's view that theological doctrines and ethical rules cannot be based on Biblical texts whose rationales and plausibility are based on cultural perceptions, values, and worldviews no longer held or considered valid **.
The view of “no sex outside marriage between a man and a woman” can be ignored for these reasons.
However sex between women should comply with the no-harm test. If a woman does not harm herself, the other woman or any third party (e.g., a partner), then sex between women is okay.
*Using the criteria in Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, by William J. Webb, 2001, sex between women is cultural or has a mainly cultural component. Paul’s attitude to sex between women in Romans 1 was the same as the widespread attitude in the 1st Century Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures.
** John H. Elliott, No kingdom of God for softies? or, what was Paul really saying? 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in context, Biblical Theology Bulletin Spring 2004
SEX BETWEEN MALES
Chapter 1 of Romans also refers to males having sex with males. The reference is part of Paul’s illustration showing how rejection of God can lead to people doing foolish things.
The New International Version translates Romans 1:27 as:
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.
A more literal interpretation of this verse is:
and likewise also the males, having left or abandoned the natural use of the female (natural sexual relations with women), were utterly consumed in their intense lust for one another; males in males working out the shameful act, and received in themselves the inevitable or appropriate payment for their error.
What form of male sexual activity is described in this verse?
This verse (Romans 1:27) states that men who had rejected God abandoned natural sexual relations with women. The men's subsequent activity is described in euphemistic terms such as consumed in their lust for one another and males acting shamefully with males (literally, males in males working out the shameful act). Note that the activity appears to be consensual.
While not explicitly stated, it is most likely that the male sex act criticized is male-male penetration (anal intercourse), not other forms of sex between males.
Penetration is implied because men penetrating men is the male equivalent of their former vaginal intercourse with women.
Penetration is also implied by the reference to males acting shamefully with males. This reference is a reflection of the Greco-Roman concept of Paul’s time that the passive partner in anal intercourse between males was being penetrated like a woman and this was a shameful thing for a man to allow or experience.
However the ultimate origin of the Romans 1 criticism of males acting shamefully with males is the prohibition of sex between males (don’t let another male penetrate you) in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. As well as the subject matter being the same, the Greek term for acting shamefully in Romans 1 occurs many times throughout Leviticus 18 and 20 (where it is translated as nakedness). Another similarity is that male (instead of man) is used both in Romans 1:27 and in Leviticus 18: 22 and 20:13.
Paul’s criticism of sex between males in Romans 1:27 repeats his criticism of sex between males (males who have sex with males) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
Who is referred to in Romans 1:27?
While not totally clear, it seems that Paul is referring to groups of people (or even a society) who have changed the ways they express themselves sexually. Nevertheless people do act sexually as individuals and therefore many individual men must have changed from having sex with females to having sex with males. This change may have been temporary for same-sex orgiastic idol worship in Roman temples (men having sex with male temple priests then later having sex with their wives) or it could have been permanent (men giving up sex with their wives and having sex only with other men). The extreme form of sex between males described in verse 27 would vividly remind Paul’s audience of orgiastic idol worship, such as worship of the pagan gods Cybele and Attis (Aphrodite and Adonis). Descriptions of that type of worship are given in this comprehensive paper. Note especially the brief comparison of verses in Romans 1 with practices of the priests and priestesses of Cybele and Attis.
What did Paul think of same-sex behavior?
Paul’s ideas of same-sex behavior would have been partly formed by his Jewish background and intellectual training *. This would include his acceptance of male- female sex as the usual practice and his knowledge of the condemnation of anal intercourse between males in Leviticus. It is likely that his views would have been expanded by his Greco-Roman culture, including its basic values of honor and shame. Hellenistic Jews around Paul’s time were hostile towards sex between males, especially pederasty (man-boy relationships). As far as we know, Paul was aware of the many different types of same-sex relationships in his culture, including male and female prostitution, pederasty, and relationships and even marriages between mature men.
Paul’s writings show that he adopted the gender (sex role) concepts of both the Torah (especially Leviticus) and his culture, including the maintenance of “male honor”. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 he states that man is head of woman, that it is natural that men and women have different hair lengths and that women should not speak in churches.
Also Paul's choice of the active verbs exchanged and abandoned reflects his culture’s belief that same-sex behavior is a freely chosen activity. Similarly Paul's use of the phrase utterly consumed with intense desire could reflect the belief of his culture that same-sex behavior was associated with insatiable and unbridled lust. That is, men would only be satisfied if they had sex with other men as well as with women. And Paul's remarks concerning the giving up of natural (opposite-sex) intercourse in favor of unnatural reflected the belief that same-sex behavior was a violation of his culture’s natural order, under which male-female sex is the natural way with males having an active sexual role and females having a passive sexual role. Paul also describes same- sex behavior as one result of idolatry.
* See Galatians 1: 14, Philippians 3: 5-6
What was the Roman attitude to sexual relations between males?
In Rome, sexual relations between males were not condemned as such. But the cultural conventions had to be followed to maintain male honor.
First, a Roman man always had to give the appearance of playing the insertive role in penetrative acts (i.e. being the active, not passive, partner). The Roman view was that masculinity is domination and penetration is subjugation. Secondly, freeborn Roman males and females (other than his wife) were off-limits as sexual partners for a Roman man.
It was understood to be natural and normal for a man to desire sexual contact with male and female bodies alike. However the Romans stigmatized effeminate males who accepted or even preferred the receptive role in intercourse. *
* This answer is derived from Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity, 1999.
Is Paul criticizing same-sex activity wherever it occurs or just same-sex activity when people worship idols?
Some people try to minimize Paul’s criticism of same- sex activity in Romans 1 by saying that he is only criticizing same-sex activity as part of idol worship. But this is not so.
Paul says twice that because people honor and serve created things (including idols) instead of God (verses 23 and 25), God allows them to mutually dishonor their bodies sexually (verses 24 and 26). This is expressed by same-sex activity (verses 26 and 27). In other words, idols sex idols sex.
The extreme form of sex between males described in verse 27 would vividly remind Paul’s audience of the orgiastic idol worship in Roman temples.
Nevertheless Paul does not directly refer to pagan temples or same-sex acts in idol worship in this passage and therefore the “plain sense” interpretation is that he is referring to same-sex activity wherever it occurs, both in temples and elsewhere.
Who took part in the same-sex activity?
The same-sex activity was done by (probably married) persons who usually had sexual activity with persons of the opposite sex (females exchanged natural sexual relations [with males] for unnatural ones and males abandoned natural sexual relations with females [for other males]). It appears that these persons had pre- existing desires to have sexual relations with people of the same sex. God gave them over by allowing them to act on those desires. It is possible that sometimes the exchange and abandonment was only temporary while the women and men were having same-sex orgies (utterly consumed in their intense lust for one another) with priests and priestesses in the temples. In other cases, the exchange and abandonment of male-female sex for same-sex activity may have been permanent.
What is meant by “receiving the due penalty for their error” in Romans 1:27?
We don’t really know what the due penalty is. However it might be a sexually transmitted disease, or the same-sex activity itself might be the penalty for their idolatry. It could also be that some of the men changed from male domination (honorable in their culture) to female passivity (dishonorable). Note also that error means mistake, not sin.
Summary of Paul’s criticism of sex between males
It has been shown above that the sexual activity referred to in Romans 1:27 is male-male penetration (anal intercourse).
Paul criticized this sexual activity by calling it shameful lusts and shameful acts and states that males were inflamed with lust for one another.
What does the criticism of male-male penetration mean for men who are attracted to other men?
If a man is attracted to or loves other men without having sex with them, the criticism of male-male penetration is irrelevant.
What does the criticism of male-male penetration mean for men who have sex with other men?
Although Paul criticizes penetrative sex between men, this criticism is not a moral principle as it does not have the essential criterion of being prescriptive (a command). That is, he doesn’t actually say don’t do it.
The criticism of male-male penetration does not apply today to straight, bisexual or gay men who have such penetrative sex because it applied only to the Greek- Roman culture of Paul’s time. For those who don’t accept this culture argument, the criticism of male-male penetration does not apply when no one is harmed, directly or indirectly, by the penetration. See how this conclusion is reached.
FALSE VIEWS ABOUT ROMANS 1:26 AND 27
Most of the following views (in italics) are those of people who wish to minimize the significance of Paul’s criticism of female-female and male-male sexual activity.
This passage criticizes only same-sex activity of heterosexuals, who usually have sex with persons of the opposite sex, and in no way criticizes the sexual activity of a modern person who is exclusively and naturally homosexual. (this is false)
It is true that the passage criticizes same-sex activity by people who usually have or had sex with persons of the opposite sex. This view is supported by St. John Chrysostom (Homily 4 on the Epistle to the Romans) (about 400 CE).
However the passage also criticizes same-sex activity as such by using words like dishonorable or shameful passions, unnatural sexual activity, consumed in their lust for one another and males acting shamefully with males. This criticism is made in the context of the Roman ethical system of honor and shame. It is most likely that the acts criticized are restricted to anal intercourse between males and anal or vaginal intercourse between females. Because the criticism is of same-sex activity as such, it applies to all people indulging in same-sex acts – straight, gay or lesbian.
In Romans 1:26 the words “unnatural sexual relations” mean “sexual relations contrary to the nature of the individual person” i.e. a heterosexual woman having sexual relations with another woman. Alternatively the words “unnatural sexual relations” mean “non- procreative sex” i.e. sex which cannot produce a child. (this is false)
The words unnatural sexual relations (Greek para physin, literally, against nature) were used in many ancient texts to refer to same-sex acts. The words were used irrespective of whether a person usually had opposite-sex relations or same-sex relations. The words did not mean only sexual relations contrary to the nature of the individual person. Therefore Paul would not have adopted this meaning.
Also, although some Jewish-Hellenistic writers (e.g. Philo) regarded any non-procreative sexual intercourse as unnatural, Paul’s speeches or letters never refer to any male-female non-procreative sex as unnatural. Instead, Paul uses unnatural sexual relations to mean sex acts which are contrary to custom in his culture, i.e. same-sex acts.
Romans 1:26 and 27 do not condemn or criticize sex between females or sex between males but merely show that it is socially disapproved or is a cultural disorder rather than a sin. (this is false)
The words used to describe sex between females and sex between males include uncleanness, dishonorable or shameful passions, unnatural sexual activity, consumed in their lust for one another and males acting shamefully (or inappropriately) with males. Elsewhere Paul uses shame or shameful or dishonorable to criticize conduct which is not necessarily evil but may simply be counter-cultural (e.g. long hair for men). However uncleanness (impurity) usually appears in lists of sins and lusts is used to indicate evil or bad desires. Similar meanings would also apply in this passage.
This is confirmed by the sexual actions in the passage being described as shameful passions resulting from people honoring and serving created things rather than God the Creator. Both the turning from God and the resulting sexual actions are being criticized.
Although he does not use the words sinful or evil or wicked, and does not say don’t do it, Paul would have considered male-male penetration to be sinful because of the prohibition in Leviticus 18:22 (don't let another male penetrate you) and he would expect his audience, especially those of a Jewish background, to have a similar view. Note that Paul also criticizes male-male penetration (males who have sex with males) in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 (he calls men who do this wicked and sinful).
By contrast, note Paul’s different description (evil, wickedness) of the sins (murder, etc) in verses 29-31.
Paul is criticizing only same-sex acts associated with idolatry or performed as part of cultic temple prostitution; he does not criticize other same-sex activity. (this is false)
The extreme form of sex between males described in verse 27 would vividly remind Paul’s audience of the orgiastic idol worship in Roman temples.
Nevertheless Paul does not directly refer to pagan temples or same-sex acts in idol worship in this passage and therefore the “plain sense” interpretation is that he is referring to same-sex activity wherever it occurs, in temples or elsewhere.
Paul does not criticize same-sex acts resulting from love; he criticizes only same-sex acts that result from lust or promiscuity. (this is false)
The passage does not say that the activity is limited to same-sex acts resulting from lust or promiscuity. Therefore the criticism applies to all same-sex acts, including those resulting from love.
Paul criticizes homosexual orientation and same-sex desire as well as same-sex behavior. (this is false)
The passage refers only to same-sex acts, not to same- sex orientation. The Greek words translated as desires in some Bible versions really mean lusts and are accompanied by words such as dishonorable, vile and inflamed with. While the passage is criticizing same-sex acts and same-sex lust, it is not criticizing non-lustful same-sex desire. Desire in a sexual sense can have many meanings ranging from just longing to be in the beloved’s presence to burning lust.
The reference in verse 32 to things deserving death is contextually connected with homosexuality (this is false)
Verse 28 starts a new section of Chapter 1 as it refers to the next stage in the spiritual deterioration of the people mentioned, i.e. they did not see fit to acknowledge God. God therefore allowed them to do the wicked things mentioned in verses 29 to 31. It is these wicked things, not the things referred to in the earlier section (including same-sex activity), which are worthy of death. The wicked things include murder and disobeying parents, which had a death penalty (if the disobeying included cursing the parents).
OTHER INTERPRETATIONS AND PAPERS
An excellent interpretation of Romans 1 and its implications for us today. (pdf)
This interesting paper shows that Romans 1 could be based on a Jewish best-seller of the period called Wisdom of Solomon.
Some recent alternative opinions on the meaning of Romans 1 are given in this informative paper (pdf).