Due Penalty for Homosexuality

This is the last for me to look at of the six texts in the Bible that arguably condemn homosexuality.So far, at least for me, the other five haven’t really held any weight as an actual argument for the sinfulness of homosexuality: Sodom is clearly stated to have been punished for their injustices, not for homosexuality as often claimed; it would be unfair to treat homosexuality in the Levitical Holiness Code as absolute law for all time while not doing the same for the rest of that code; and there are serious translational issues with the two other New Testament texts found in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.  That leaves one text, and to me it carries the most weight of any of them, so let’s look at that here:

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 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

While other verses could be argued to support a Side B view of homosexuality – that it is wrong but it is natural – this text is the only one that on the surface supports a Side X view: it’s not even natural.  But as I looked at it again I realized that it doesn’t really say that.  It says that heterosexual relations are natural (at least for those being discussed), not that heterosexual attractions are.  If anything, verse 24 just above it – which may or may not refer to homosexuality – says that God gave them over to the “sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with each other” (NIV 2010).  In other words, if those previous verses are discussing homosexuality, those desires are seen as natural, albeit sinful.  So I again quickly dismiss Side X.

The rest of the surrounding text is about the wrath of God.  It can be summarized as that people knew God, but turned to idols and sinful lifestyles instead, specifically nature/pagan worship which wouldn’t have been unusual in Rome (which of course is who the book of Romans was written to). The issue at hand is idolatry – people treating something else, in this case their sexual desires, as higher than God.  On a quick read for the general context, you might not even catch those couple of verses. They come in the same section of text as this list:

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1: 28-32 NIV)

I know I keep going back to this, but it puts a bit of perspective on the homosexuality debate doesn’t it? If it’s wrong, it is still no more wrong than stuff like envy, deceit, gossip, arrogance, boastfulness, or disobeying parents.  Next time you want to condemn homosexuality, maybe you need to perform the plankeye process on yourself with some of these other things as well – things that unlike homosexuality do appear much more concretely in many other places of Scripture as sinful.  One argument therefore is that since this passage is not actually about homosexuality, rather only appears as a sidenote, you can’t use it to condemn.  I personally think it gives perspective but I don’t buy that you can completely ignore it on that argument alone.  The verses on homosexuality are there, so I do think you have to ask what they mean.

There’s also the issue of them giving up “natural relations” for “shameful lusts” (26 and 27). What is natural? There is no real debate about whether the desire is natural – it clearly is. So is it natural to follow those up with sexual activity? Those on Side B or X would say no. They would pair it with the “shameful lusts” and say that homosexuality in and of itself is shameful. Side A would ask why it is shameful. This is basically my complaint against the standard argument that it is a sin. For most other things we can all agree is a sin, we can see why it does damage to yourself or others, but I’ve never heard anybody come up with a similar argument against committed same-sex relationships.  Some people are content to say “because the Bible says so” without actually looking into the texts in detail, but that just doesn’t do it for me. I need to ask why, and I rarely hear an answer.

There are other interpretations to what was being addressed in Romans that was shameful about it. Important reminder: this is a letter to a specific church dealing with specific issues. It was not written to be read 2000 years later, and we only have one letter of one side of the conversation. So there is a lot of speculation about what exactly was going on that Paul had to address.  Aside from the blanket Side B statement above that it is shameful in and of itself, there are other alternatives.

A second interpretation has to do with the abandoning of “natural” relations. Many people theorize that the problem that Paul is talking about is heterosexuals who went against their nature, whether as part of their pagan worship (remember the context) or otherwise . Therefore it is a “shameful lust” because it is not a natural lust. It is a sin because it is denying who God made them to be.  In this case, Side B would not just be wrong about counselling gays and lesbians away from their relationships; they would actually be encouraging them to sin by denying the person God made. The repeated emphasis on “natural” and the emphasis on them turning away, implying that they were heterosexually active, makes this a valid interpretation to me.

Another interpretation is that the problem being addressed is not that they were homosexuals but that they were uncommitted. Note that the repeated word to appear is “lust”. Not “love” (not even “eros” which is the romantic/sexual love) or “marriage” or “relationship” – “lust”. I know lust is a vaguely defined word, but to me it implies no commitment, no love. It is a selfish sexual attraction. It is seeing somebody and saying “he or she is good for my pleasure” and setting aside their person-hood. Jesus reinforces that this selfish viewing of others for our own sexual pleasure is wrong in the Sermon on the Mount, so really this is not saying anything new. The fact that in this case it happened to be homosexual or bisexual abuse of others is irrelevant – it’s abuse, and that’s the point. That’s valid, although by itself doesn’t address why Paul felt it necessary to point out that some of these lustful activities were homosexual.

Remember the gist of the whole passage. The fundamental problem here is idolatry. Why is a committed relationship idolatry? It can be, no matter what the sexes of the two involved in the relationship, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve heard people say that a same-sex relationship is inherently idolatrous, presumably based on this passage, but again I need to ask why. What is it about it that is idolatrous? Idolatry is putting something else in God’s place, above God. God is still the centre of the relationship for both parties involved? Ok, then, by its definition, that’s not idolatry. Is it really that simple? I still haven’t heard anything to justify otherwise.

So in summary, I also believe the point made by the second interpretation, but after some research I do think that the third interpretation provides the best explanation of the role of these verses in their context.  I think I’ve got two posts left on this topic before I’ll move on to something else.  I’ll give a bit of a tour through some of the other arguments other than the specific biblical texts, and then I’ll finally wrap this up for a conclusion (and I applaud those who have read all of them so far).

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.