Romans 1:26-27 is one of the few Bible passages commonly used to condemn homosexuality. But, unlike the other “clobber passages” (as they’ve come to be called), this is the only passage in the entire Bible that condemns both male-male and female-female sexual activity. As such, it’s the only one that can, in any way consistent with its language, be legitimately interpreted as condemning same-sex sexual activity in any general or universal way. But, just because an interpretation is legitimate does not mean that it is accurate. Consequently, the passage still requires careful and thoughtful deliberation.
So, let’s dive right in and see just what this passage is about.
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,  and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
The language couldn’t be more clear. Both male-male and female-female sexual activity were condemned as degrading, unnatural, and indecent. Not only were the activities condemned, but the assertion of their appropriate punishment (“due penalty”)—which is often interpreted as sexually transmitted diseases—reinforces just how bad these activities were considered.
As apparent as the language of this passage may seem, however, it behooves us to consider the textual and cultural contexts within which these verses reside. We’ll then be in a much better position to interpret and apply the language of the verses in a manner most consistent with their original intent.
The best way to begin is to examine the greater textual context for clues as to what brought on this serious condemnation of same-sex activity. Was it just a random thought that Paul wanted to be sure to address, or was it a part of a bigger discourse on some other issue? To answer these questions, we’ll begin with verse 18, and read through until the end of the chapter. I do, however, encourage you to read the entire chapter when time permits.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,  because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.  For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools,  and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.  Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.  For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.  For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,  and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.  And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper,  being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,  without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;  and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
By considering verses 26-27 in isolation from their surrounding context, we could easily make the mistake of believing that the subject of Paul’s message was homosexuality. In fact, this was not the case. When same-sex intercourse was mentioned, it was specifically related to his message concerning people who were thwarting the revelation of God by engaging in idolatrous practices.
In verse 18, Paul transitioned into a discussion about a certain group of people against whom God’s wrath was revealed. He described the effects of their sin in verses 19-22, and then identified the group in verses 23 and 25. He was speaking about idolaters—people who changed the glory of God into fashioned images that resembled men and animals. These images are called idols, and it is from the worship of these idols that we get the word “idolatry.” And the worship of idols was what the people that Paul was referring to engaged in (v. 25).
Now that we’ve determined the context of Paul’s statement, we’re in a much better position to interpret and apply his words in a manner consistent with the original intent. Ultimately, the accurate interpretation boils down to the answer to a simple question: Does Paul’s condemnation of same-sex sexual acts in verses 26-27 apply to any such acts in general (a moral pronouncement that is universally applicable), or does it only apply to such acts engaged in within the socio-religious framework of idolatry?
Most people will be quick to answer this question one way or the other, depending on where they already fall in their theological beliefs concerning homosexuality. They’ll choose to interpret the passage in a manner consistent with their existing beliefs. But, such an approach won’t serve us here because rather than looking to validate existing beliefs, we want to allow Scripture to speak for itself. Consequently, we have to look into the text itself to see if it provides any hints as to the answer to this pertinent question.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that a surface-level reading of the text can easily justify either conclusion. On one hand, the subject of Paul’s discourse is idolatry, not sexuality. The same-sex sexual acts are only an extension of the idolatrous practices that are at the heart of the matter. As a result, a case can be made that same-sex sexual acts outside of the realm of idolatrous worship would not fall within the scope of Paul’s condemnation.
But on the other hand, a case can also be made that although it’s clear that the subject of Paul’s message is idolatry, the same-sex sexual acts that extended from that idolatry were still described in language that indicates a divine perspective on the acts themselves, whether idolatry is involved or not. In fact, degrading (v. 26), unnatural (vs. 26 and 27), and indecent (v. 27) were all words Paul used to describe the acts themselves, not the idolatry that they found their source in.
Such interpretational problems are a perfect case in point. Scripture is not to be used to validate doctrine. Rather, we should use it to formulate doctrine (2Timothy 3:16). If we start off reading a passage with an absolute certainty as to what it means, it is ever-so-easy to read into the text a validation of those beliefs—whether the text itself actually supports those beliefs or not. I strongly encourage you to remain mindful of this when engaging in biblical study, especially when it involves issues with implications as serious as those surrounding sexual orientation.
So, which of these interpretations is correct? The only way a certain answer can be derived is by examining the text itself, as well as related passages, for clues. One very important rule of interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. Let’s employ this rule and determine exactly what Paul is condemning.
The first thing that must be acknowledged is that the subject of this passage was, indeed, idolatry, not sexuality. Not only is this borne out by the verses preceding verses 26-27, but also, Paul made an explicit link between idolatry and the same-sex sexual acts he was condemning. In verses 23-24, he identified these people as idolaters (verse 23) and then said, “wherefore” (or “therefore”) in relation to God giving them up to sexual uncleanness (verse 24). Clearly, he was saying that their same-sex sexual acts were a direct result of their idolatry.
This isn’t where the connection ends, though. It’s interesting that people love to read verse 26 in isolation from verse 25; yet the very beginning of verse 26 states, “For this cause” (or “for this reason”). Well, for what reason? Seeing that God gave them over to “degrading passions” (which were identified as same-sex sexual acts), what exactly was the reason? Was it because they were born that way? Was it because they were molested during adolescence? What exactly was the reason these people engaged in same-sex sexual activity? Well, if we back up to verse 25, we discover the reason. Paul explicitly told us that they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” Again, Paul identified idolatry as the cause of their same-sex sexual activity.
So then, the first thing we must drill into our heads is that, undeniably, Paul looked at these sexual acts through a specific lens. It wasn’t the lens of whether someone is born gay. It wasn’t even the lens of whether they become gay because of upbringing or traumatic sexual experiences during childhood development. He wasn’t even talking about sexual experimentation or feelings that just seem to develop over time. In other words, he wasn’t having a modern, 21st century conversation about sexual orientation! He was talking specifically about sexual activity being engaged in as a direct result of idolatry. To deny this explicit link to idolatry is to deny the language that God saw fit to inspire Paul to use, not once (in verses 23-24), but twice (also in verses 25-26).
In fact, we find this connection to idolatry emphasized a third time in this passage (once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Ghost, as the old saints would say). Immediately after Paul condemned the sexual activity in verses 26-27, he once again stated that God’s judgment was a result of their idolatry. In verse 28, he said, “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind…” If you look at other common translations, it reads something like, “And because they did not…” or as “Since they did not…” But because of what? Since what? People who ignore the context will quickly say, “Because of homosexuality.” But no! The answer is right there in the text, if we would just read it. He specifically says that it was because they stopped acknowledging God—in other words, they rejected Him as the one true God and, as he said in previous verses, worshiped idols instead.
The obvious question is: Why was their same-sex sexual activity an extension of idolatry? What was it about the context of their sexual acts that connected them to idolatry in so explicit a way as to make Paul draw this connection not once or twice, but three times? I’m telling you… If we fail to consider this link, we will fail to properly interpret this passage.
Before considering this link, however, let’s examine the words Paul used to describe the sexual activity itself. Let’s determine whether or not Paul’s description of the activity as degrading, unnatural, and indecent is subject to the activity’s relation to idolatry, or if it describes the activity irrespective of its context within idolatrous custom.
|degrading||atimias||Strong’s G819 – infamy, that is, (subjectively) comparative indignity, (objectively) disgrace: – dishonour, reproach, shame, vile|
|unnatural||para phusin||Strong’s G3844/G5449 – beyond or opposed to native disposition, constitution or usage|
|indecent||aschêmosunên||Strong’s G808 – an indecency|
Two of these Greek words—atimias and aschemosunen—have meanings that are apparently subjective. For example, the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor is infamous in American history, but likely famous in Japanese history. Likewise, what is considered disgraceful, dishonorable, shameful or indecent is subject to the particular culture within which the acts involved are perceived. It is disgraceful, for instance, to show one’s back to a ruler in many monarchistic societies, whereas such a thing is not given a second thought in the United States.
Not so obviously subjective is the meaning of para phusin—beyond or opposed to native disposition, constitution or usage. At face value, it seems almost certainly objective. Still, it would serve us well to consider other biblical usages of these terms. If we cannot be absolutely certain of their objectivity or subjectivity by considering this isolated usage, a wider perspective of the biblical writers’ use of these terms (with special emphasis on Pauline usage) will almost certainly indicate whether or not his description is subject to the society in which he lived.
Let’s start with atimia (the root of atimias—translated as “degrading” in verse 26). Does Paul use the term elsewhere in Scripture in a subjective way?
Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?
In this passage, Paul actually uses two of our terms—phusis (the root of phusin) and atimia. We’d be hard-pressed to find a person within the modern Church who believes that this passage establishes a universal principle concerning hair lengths on men. Only in the most legalistic mind would a person believe that God is the least bit concerned with how long a person’s hair is. To the contrary, what He is concerned about in passages such as this one is what long hair on a man represents to those who see it (i.e. in that culture); and what it represented within the ancient Greco-Roman society—femininity; a disregard for the prevailing patriarchal social order—is very different from what it represents in modern Western society (absolutely nothing). Consider Native American Christians. Should we demand of them that they cut their hair to a certain length, despite the fact that their ethnic culture has no such stigma on men with long hair?
When we fail to understand why a command was given in the first place, we can find ourselves applying it to people and situations to which it was never intended to apply. This may certainly be an easier approach to Scripture—for it doesn’t require a person to think beyond what they read on the page—but it certainly isn’t an honorable approach. Our most solemn responsibility as people who “handle the word of truth” (2Ti. 2:15) is to maintain its holiness and efficacy by applying it in a manner consistent with its original intent.
Let’s take our examination a step further. As with every language, Greek is not absolutely precise. People often employ synonyms in different contexts, although the overall point being made is the same. So, although Paul used both atimia and phusis in 1Co. 11, does he describe culturally subjective things in Scripture using synonyms of these words, or of aschemosunen (indecent)? Actually, he does.
Judge for yourselves: is it proper [prepon (G4241) – suitable, proper, fitting, becoming] for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper [aischron (G149) – a lack of decorum] for a woman to speak in church.
It’s clear that Paul certainly used these words in a manner reflective of the culture within which he lived. Consequently, when applying his words to other cultures (like the modern Western world), the differing cultural perceptions must be taken into account.
Even Paul’s appeal to nature in Romans 1:26-27 does not necessarily indicate a divine pronouncement, or some type of universal principle. We certainly don’t consider his appeal to nature in 1Co. 11:14 as a universal, divine pronouncement concerning hair lengths on men (and, considering verse 15, hair lengths on women).
Since it cannot be our default belief that same-sex sexual activity is still “degrading”, “unnatural”, or “indecent”—seeing as Paul used the same (and synonymous) words to describe culturally subjective things elsewhere in Scripture—we have to consider why he said what he said. Uncovering his purpose in describing the acts the way he did will help us determine whether or not the description still applies.
This is where the textual and cultural context is vitally important. It is only through understanding Paul’s socio-religious context, as well as the overall argument he was making in this passage, that we will be able to properly apply his words within our modern socio-religious context—a context that is substantially different than the one Paul originally addressed.
We’ve already determined that the textual context dealt not with human sexuality but with idolatry. Paul’s language in the text expressly indicates that the sexual activity being condemned was absolutely an extension of the idolatrous worship that was the subject of his discourse. Remember that he, three times, connected the judgment of God in relation to the sexual activity to their idolatry. He said, “wherefore/therefore”, “for this cause/reason”, and “as they did not/because they did not”. The sexual activity cannot be considered in isolation from the idolatry that it resulted from. To do so would be to detach verses 26-27 from their context, thereby twisting God’s word.
Now, I previously raised the question of why Paul would state three times that the sexual activity these people engaged in resulted from idolatry. The answer to this question is very easily found by considering the culture within which Paul lived (Greco-Roman), and the particular people to whom he addressed his epistle (the Romans).
From the cultural perspective, the ancient Greco-Roman world was known for its open sexuality. One mustn’t dig deep into history to discover that the Greco-Romans engaged in activities as sexually liberal as temple prostitution and orgies, particularly in religious contexts associated with the worship of the Roman god, Bacchus (called Dionysus by the Greeks). Considering Paul’s association of these same-sex sexual acts with idolatry, it is almost certain that this type of cultic sexual activity was what he was referring to. To his Jewish eyes, such acts were directly associated with idolatrous worship, and had been considered so for almost 1,500 years (Lev. 18:1-3, 22; 22:1-8, 13) (see my article on the Levitical proscriptions for more information). The fact that those within his culture who engaged in the activity often did so within a framework of their idolatrous beliefs only cemented his view that those acts were degrading, unnatural, and indecent.
It was the activity’s association with the idolatrous Greco-Roman society that colored Paul’s view of the acts in general. As far as he was concerned, all same-sex sexual acts were a symptom of idolatry—much like we consider the swastika or burning cross hateful, even though it is actually what they represent that is what’s hateful. Still, when we see such things, we don’t stop and think, What’s the context here? The images immediately invoke a certain negative reflexive emotion. As a Black man, I have the same revulsion at the very sight of the Confederate flag.
Following this logic, it is not only appropriate but vital to proper hermeneutics (methods of interpretation) to consider the association of the images described when determining whether the description is relevant or applicable to our modern society. Is same-sex sexual activity still deeply intertwined with idolatrous culture and/or worship? The answer is: Absolutely not! As is the case with heterosexuality, there are certainly homosexuals who are not Christians, and some who likely subscribe to idolatrous beliefs (worshiping images and icons); however, no sincere person can possibly conclude that homosexuality has anything to do with idolatry within the modern world. Even the most ardent opponents of homosexuality don’t immediately think “idolater” when they think “homosexual.” Instead, they likely think, “Nasty bastard!” No one is imagining homosexuals bowing to a statue of Bacchus, yet that’s precisely what Paul envisioned when condemning same-sex sexual activity in Romans 1.
This is not just a guess by Pastor Romell. Three times, Paul explicitly linked the sexual activity (and God’s releasing them to it) to their idolatry. These were not Christians. These were not people who had committed their lives to Jesus and who hadn’t bowed to another god since. These were not people who had inner same-sex attractions that had absolutely nothing to do with idolatry. These were idolaters, plain and simple, and the sex they engaged in was prompted by their idolatry. Such is absolutely not the case in modern society, and it certainly isn’t the case when it comes to gay Christians, who would sooner die than worship someone or something other than the Lord Jesus!
Now, I understand that people can sincerely read verses 26-27 and misinterpret them. They can even read the greater context and miss the links Paul made simply because they’re reading into the text what they’ve been taught down through the years. Still, in the here and now, we have to make a decision. Either we’ll let the text speak to us afresh, or we’ll cling to that old rugged doctrine. Either we’ll accept the fact that Paul clearly condemned this sexual activity within the context of idolatry, or we’ll continue to consider these passages an everlasting condemnation of homosexuality in general, directly contradicting the inspired language of the text itself, as well as an objective consideration of the culture that prompted the language.
Taking into account all that we have considered, it would be wholly inappropriate to hold modern people to Paul’s ancient worldview. While he rightly condemned the activity he witnessed within the idolatrous Greco-Roman culture—much like I, as a pastor, might condemn the inverted pentagram, swastika, and other images or acts associated with evil things within our society—that condemnation is now wholly obsolete because the sexual activity is no longer culturally intertwined with and representative of idolatry, and it most certainly is not being engaged in by people as an expression or extension of idolatrous beliefs or practices. Applying Paul’s words as written to 21st century humanity is as ridiculous as condemning a modern woman for wanting to wear her hair short (1Co. 11:15), which, regrettably, a few fringe churches still do. God help us!