Romans 1:26-27

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“Textual Healing: Why Romans 1:26-27 is NOT the text to cite for condemning/excluding LGBTQQ”

Please read slowly and carefully. This essay deals meticulously with biblical texts and requires attention to details. As always, this important topic requires reading with an open mind and heart.

Romans 1:26-27 is one of the more frequently cited biblical texts to support the oppression and exclusion of the LGBTQQ community. But this conventional interpretation has tragically become the very antithesis to what the Apostle Paul originally intended. In its original context, Paul’s words are part of a brilliantly crafted argument to expound the radical grace of the Gospel and its power to unite both Jews and Gentiles (today we should hear “Christians and non-Christians”). In the final analysis, Romans is about one thing: the power of the Gospel to generate and sustain a grace-filled community of sinners.


The words of Rom. 1:26-27 are quoted often to condemn gay persons. In doing this, however, the verses are taken out of the context of Paul’s overall argument in chapters 1-3. It is therefore imperative that we understand the greater context of Paul’s argument and the role that verses 26-27 play in his entire point.

The context for Paul’s argument is 1:16-3:20. It all begins with Paul’s proclamation that the Gospel is for both Jews and Gentiles: “It is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” (1:16). When one reads Jew/Gentile in Paul, these two categories indicate all of humanity. With this introduction Paul lays down two essential elements of the Gospel: 1) the Gospel is universal (for everyone); and, 2) the Gospel is about fellowship (uniting Jew/Gentile). 

Following this introduction Paul begins a longwinded attack on various human behaviors (1:18-32). It is here that Paul describes women and men engaging in “unnatural relations.”  However, what matters most is not what behaviors are being condemned, but rather who. While this passage is commonly read as if Paul is condemning all of humanity, he is not.  Here Paul is speaking about the Gentiles. This is made clear by Paul’s words in 19-20:  “For what can be known about God is plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Such language would not be used to describe the Jews who knew God through God’s revelation, salvation, and election)

Reading this passage as a description of the universal human condition is a common mistake. Paul is not just listing sins, he is describing the Gentiles in order to make a larger point. Verses 29-32 are not simply a list of bad behaviors, it is Paul’s exaggerated condemnation of the Gentiles through a rhetorical device called a “vice list.” NT scholar Craig Keener notes, “Ancient writers sometimes employed ‘vice lists,’ as here… Paul here sets up his readers for chapter 2,” (IVP Background Commentary: New Testament, 417). It is imperative that we understand Romans 1:26-27 as part of Paul’s setup for what is to come in Romans 2.

To further understand how Paul set up his argument in Romans 1:18-32 we must look at a fascinating parallel between Romans 1-3 and the Wisdom of Solomon. The Wisdom of Solomon is a deuterocanonical book that may be found in the Jewish canon, as well as many Christian Bibles. The book was popular around the same time as Paul’s epistle to the Romans (First Century C.E.) and most scholars believe that Paul made intentional parallels with it. The following insights are taken from an article by Everett R. Kalin, although Keener also notes that “Paul’s argument is similar to one in the Wisdom of Solomon,” (Keener, 416).

In his article “Romans 1:26-27 and Homosexuality,” Kalin explains that “some of the key themes and specific turns of phrase in Wisdom of Solomon 13-14 are so close to what Paul says in Rom. 1:18-32 that we might even imagine him having that text before him (mentally if not physically) as he wrote.” Put simply, Paul’s words in Romans sound almost identical to the words in another Jewish Scripture. To help the reader understand the parallels between Romans and Wisdom of Solomon I have created a chart. (see below, click to enlarge)

So why is this important? It is important because the two texts are almost identical in the “A” stage of their arguments, but in the “B” stage they are not. The above chart shows the “A” stage of each text’s argument: the Gentiles should have known God but they did not and so they worshiped idols and God gave them up to immorality. This sets up what the authors really want to say in stage “B.” The significance, however, is that Paul’s “B” is unexpectedly different.

For the Wisdom text, the “B” of the argument makes clear “how differently God has treated those idolatrous Gentiles and us Jews and how different we are from them,” (Kalin, 428). The main point in Wisdom’s “B” is that the Gentiles are immoral and different, while the Jews are righteous and loved by God. This frame of thinking was common in the Judaism of Jesus’ day; but it is not what Paul proposes in Romans 1-3.

What does Paul propose? Unity, fellowship, and the grace of the Gospel! The “B” stage in Romans is found in 2:1-3:20 and here again Kalin is helpful: “In 2:1 he turns to those who dis-approve of the Gentile’s evil, in contrast to those in 1:32, who approve of it. One would think that for Paul that would be a step in the right direction; he, after all, disapproved of it too. But, on the contrary, he makes of this disapproval a judging of ‘the other,’ since the judge is doing the very same things… Paul springs the trap, drops the other shoe, and offers a totally different “B”: ‘You too are without excuse’ (anapologeitos) – the exact same word used of the Gentiles in Romans 1:20!” (Kalin, 428). I have created a figure for the “B” arguments as well.

Paul’s use of the Wisdom of Solomon text is a brilliant strategy to lure the self-righteous into thinking that they are better than the immoral Gentiles. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome would have heard Paul’s “A” as typical Jewish thinking: the Gentiles are lost, we Jews are saved. But while Jewish Christians probably expected a “B” like Wisdom, Paul instead offers the Gospel truth in his “B.”

Imagine Jew and Gentile hearing the reality-altering truth of the Gospel: all of you are undeserving of God’s grace (3:9). Only God is righteous! It is God’s grace, God’s love, God’s gift, God’s righteousness, and God’s justification (3:24-26). It’s not about you and your personal morality, it’s about God and God’s grace in Jesus the Christ

That Paul makes the effort to craft such a clever, rhetorical trap reveals the emphasis of his argument. It is not the immoral Gentiles that he condemns, it is the self-righteous and exclusive Jews. This point is emphasized in 2:8 when Paul lambasts “those who are factious.” This word ἐριθείας indicates those people who are bias toward their own social group at the expense of others. Like Jesus, Paul’s major condemnation is reserved for those who think that they are in the moral majority. Paul’s condemnation is for those who draw boundary lines to separate themselves from the supposedly immoral and keep the Gentiles outside. (The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the mentality that led to Jesus being crucified outside of the walls of the holy city as a basphemer.)

The point of Romans 1:18-3:20 is to realize that all of humanity is united in sin. This is the true reality revealed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The morally exclusive communities that we attempt to construct are false realities. They are, as Margaret Alter put it, a “politic of holiness.” Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20 traps these groups in their self-righteousness and ideological idolatry. Both Jew and Gentile are guilty of attempting to construct their own reality through idolatry. This is what Paul means when he writes that the Jews do “the very same thing,” (i.e. idolatry). But the reality of the Gospel shatters idolatry and all of our factious behavior.

What, then, does Paul offer instead of this factious behavior? After all, Romans 1-3 is just the beginning to Paul’s letter and it too sets up a larger point to be made. Upon this foundation Paul proceeds to expound the power of the Gospel to generate and sustain a grace-filled community of sinners who have been saved by Christ. Kalin argues that Paul’s “principle reason for the writing of Romans [is] to encourage members of various Christian congregations in Rome, divided over issues they see as vital to faith and life and worship, to welcome one another despite, and even before resolving, these differences (see Rom. 14:1-15:3 and especially 15:7),” (Kalin, 425).

Indeed, the point of Romans follows the point of the Gospel: to generate grace-filled community. But just as Paul begins his letter with an appeal to the immorality of all, I believe that we too must realize our shared brokenness in order to truly unite as a grace-filled community. Paul “sees the Gentiles as well as the Jews in the reflected light of that fire of God’s wrath which is the fire of his love,” (Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 33). Without the realization that we are all immoral, we cannot truly grasp the extent of God’s grace to everyone. Indeed this is how grace truly operates: “In our decision concerning God’s revealed grace we stand or fall according to whether we allow it to be grace, God’s unmerited favour towards others and towards ourselves – or not,” (Barth, Romans, 34). Without realizing that “we” are just like “them,” we don’t get the scandal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of God’s grace to create a new community and a new world.

Now, how might this translate to the contemporary church and the LGBTQQ community?  First and foremost, Romans 1:26-27 must be read in the original context of Paul’s argument in 1:18-3:20. The passage’s main purpose is not to condemn homosexuality, it is to condemn the factious behavior of the Jews. This means that those who use 1:26-27 to distinguish themselves from those described are committing the very act that Paul condemns in this passage! Those who quote Romans 1:26-27 as evidence for excluding or persecuting LGBTQQ are living examples of the “politic of holiness” that Paul intends to eradicate. They are the “hard and impenitent… who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness,” (2:5,8).

By understanding Paul’s argument we may see that Rom. 1:26-27 is not the biblical text to cite when drawing moral dividing lines concerning LGBTQQ. Instead, this text is about the power of the Gospel to move beyond factious morality to a “Gospel morality” that promotes fellowship because of God’s grace to all of us immoral people.

At this point a very important clarification is necessary before the reader misunderstands my interpretation of Paul. I do no think that Paul is saying, “Never judge or condemn immoral behavior.” I have, in fact, read Paul’s entire letter and am aware that he encourages followers of Christ to resist sin (chap. 6-8 especially). For it seems that Paul [given what he could know about human beings at his time] disapproved of the Gentile vices in 1:18-32. However, I believe that Paul is saying, “Do not exclude these brothers and sisters from your community. Why? Because you are just as immoral and because the grace of God is immeasurable.” This interpretation fits the overall purpose of Romans.

Here also I shall take the opportunity to respond in advance to a likely refutation. In the spirit of my interpretation of Paul, the reader may ask, “Where, then, do we draw the line? Are we to welcome any/all behavior in our community in the name of grace?” This is an excellent question and the answer, I believe, is complicated. We must remember that grace does not jettison morality; nor the responsibility that it requires. I believe that both Jesus and Paul reveal a Christian morality whose primary goal is to generate and sustain a grace-filled communityThis means that not all behavior is appropriate for Christian community. Murder, deceit, and verbal abuse, for example, are anti-community behaviors. They do not fulfill the Law as both Jesus and Paul taught: to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31; Rom. 13:9). Such behaviors are immoral because they destroy community and the Gospel is ultimately about building community. As such, they are undesirable for Christian community and should be managed with love according to the appropriate context. It should be noted that to compare homosexuality to anti-communal behavior like murder is not only absurd, but tragically disrespectful. If one cannot see the colossal difference between one who kills and one who loves, then there is no hope for establishing a Christian morality at all.

At the same time, however, the Gospel reveals that morality alone is not enough. Relying only upon a set of rules or doctrinal guidelines will always fail because we are all immoral. Morality by itself inevitably leads to the factious politics of holiness and the exclusion of others. But this is the antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Genuine human fellowship is made possible by the grace of the Gospel. Only grace makes possible the fellowship of sinners. 

This, as I have attempted to show, is the real argument of Paul found in Romans 1:18-3:20. Rather than a moralized diatribe against homosexuality, 1:26-27 is part of a jarring polemic against a sociological pattern that is far too common among religious communities. If we are to hear Paul today, we must ask ourselves which “B” argument we identify with. When it comes to issues concerning LGBTQQ, do we sound like those in Wisdom of Solomon: the self-righteous moral majority? Or are we more like Paul’s description: without excuse, just like them, doing the very same things? As Karl Barth suggested, the Gospel of grace stands or falls on our ability to answer this question. Our answer determines whether or not we allow God’s unmerited favor toward others and ourselves – or not.

Christians who refer to this text in an effort to condemn LGBTQQ behavior no doubt take the Bible very seriously. But so do I. And I believe that taking this text seriously means reading it in its original context, both historical and literary. My hope is that this kind of reading might lead Christians to a kind of “textual healing” – a restoration of the text to a more faithful interpretation of Paul’s letter. More importantly, I hope that the restoration of the text might also lead to the healing of our communities. It seems that this too was Paul’s hope and his reason for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Christians in Rome nearly 2,000 years ago.

2 thoughts on “Romans 1:26-27

  1. Baiba says:

    Brilliant, Josh…we have lots to talk about!

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks Josh.

    I like your overall setup of Romans 1, and think it is well done, esp your linking it back to the Wisdom of Solomon.

    However, I think that your use of the word “community” is reflective of current vernacular, but what God is calling Jew and Gentile alike into is the Church of Jesus Christ, not into a general community. As a church we are to be “without spot or wrinkle” Eph 5:27. I Peter 2:5 indicates we are being built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood… And there is, indeed, Christian morality implied within the church. SEE WHAT ABOUT below

    A discussion I have not seen so far has to do with Paul’s argument in 1:19-20: “19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,[g] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

    Point 1: Given that the *overwhelming* human experience (as I know it from my read on history) is that human propensity is *not* toward monotheism. So the assertion that “you should have known” seems like a peculiar argument because in reality only a very small fraction of the ancient world “figured it out.” The argument, certainly as aligned to the Wisdom of Solomon, is very Jewish-centric (we be good, you be bad).

    Point 2: Rom 1:29: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

    >> We know that Rachel (wife of Jacob who was renamed Israel by God) brought her household idols with her on their family escape from father Laban, clearly implying they were of some importance to them. So we have evidence of idolatry along with Jacob, aka Israel, to whom the promise came. So does the Romans list of all the evils of idolatry apply to Jacob et al? (Gen 31:19). [Classic example of God achieving his purpose within the fallibility of man]

    I’m also scratching my head on the idolatry presumption and homosexuality. In reverse this implies that homosexuality is exclusively the result of idolatry. In recent times, Henri Nouwen (seriously well known Christian author now deceased) was same-sex attracted, but I do not believe acted on it. Wesley Hill, in his book “Washed and Waiting” in his personal testimony, was raised in a Christian home and was a Christian until colliding with his homosexual orientation. I am wondering: where exactly was/is Wesley’s idolatry? He loved Christ; accepted Christ. He was a CHRISTIAN when he realized he was gay. (Wesley has chosen a celibate life as being his choice for reconciling his faith with his orientation); great book – worth reading. Perhaps the *practice* of homosexual acts is implied, in and of itself, as idolatry(?) No idea. But Romans clearly implies that homosexuality is a RESULT of idolatry.

    WHAT ABOUT …? ADULTEROUS REMARRIAGES (uh oh)…

    In Matthew 19:1– Jesus clearly lays out that anyone who divorces his wife, and remarries (except for sexual immorality on the part of one of the parties) is committing adultery. In I Cor 6:9-10, Paul indicates that if you commit adultery, you will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Adultery: That’d be right next to the text that says the same about the following (a) drunkenness (b) swindlers (c) and “homosexuals” etc.

    So how is this possible?

    The last time I checked, I have *never* in my adult church experience in the US, heard of remarried mixed families being put out of the church for their **clearly** adulterous behavior/relationships. And I am also not aware of drunks being tossed out of church. We recognize that addicts and drunks NEED JESUS and the support of the church to overcome.

    But I am aware of many cases of severe censure of Christian believers for “homosexual” behaviors (and I suspect orientation in some cases).

    SO BACK TO ROMANS 2 …

    Those in the church who (a) keep silent and do not take a stand about the remarried, and (b) those who are remarried are both committing sin! (a)’s sin is unrighteous judgement (my sin as not as bad as your gay sin) and (b)’s sin: well, its just plain old adultery~! So IN BOTH CASES those individuals judging fall plainly into Paul’s trap in Romans 2. Sin is sin. Your sins are not less sinful than mine; and if you think they are, then I would suggest you are simply in denial and full of pride.

    I’d really like to see some honest dialog on this “exception” – and the rationale for accepting heterosexual adultery while denying homosexuals in monogamous relationships access. [For those outside the church, not all churches disallow gay attendance; in fact, many conservative churches are shifting on this topic and welcoming people in].

    =====
    These arguments are primarily rhetorical and for purposes of improving dialog and respect for each other’s struggles.

    I am not suggesting we push Remarried couples out of the church. It is the holy spirit’s job to convict of sin. What I’d like to see is a serious rethink in the hearts of (some) Christians who are far more interested in JUDGING (against scripture) those OUTSIDE the church. Jesus didn’t do that. Within the church, righteous judgement would require a level playing field for all believers; not just those who happen to stand a more obviously apart from the crowd.

    ===
    I honestly do not think the majority perspective on Romans 1 can be undone. Paul pretty clearly (and Corinth was wild-sex central at the time Paul was there) condemning homosexual activity, which in Greek times often included a STR8 male taking on a teen in a mentoring and sexual role. In Rome, only slaves and prostitutes were allowed to play the receiving role in sex, as doing so was an affront to Roman manhood. The Greeks did not have this concern. The Romans very likely had some gay couples, but this was heavily frowned upon as you were expected to marry and have children so Rome could have soldiers (part of your civic duty). There is little doubt that gay Greek couples were present in Corinth (where the book of Romans was presumably written).

    ===
    To my Christian friends gay or not: hang in there – we all have a call on our lives. Don’t give up! Jesus is full of both grace and truth; both work together to build us into His image and to build His kingdom.

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