Paul, Homosexuality, and “Nature”

Paul, Homosexuality, and “Nature” April 16, 2012

I’m contributing to a forthcoming book on Scripture and Homosexuality (a response to this one). There is a whole host of complex biblical, theological, and pastoral issues here for consideration.

Specifically, I’m wrestling with Paul’s argument in Rom 1:26-27, a key text, and thinking especially about Paul and “nature.”

Central to Paul’s critique of female and male homosexuality is its unnaturalness as indicated by his use of the word phusikos for “nature/natural.” Paul’s phrase para physin is best translated as “contrary to nature” since the natural use of sex organs is exchanged for something else. He says that women exchanged “the natural use [of men] for what is contrary to nature [i.e. lesbianism]” and that men left the “natural use of women [i.e. in the sexual act]” and instead become inflamed with lust for one another. As Robert Gagnon points out, Paul, minimally, is referring to the anatomical and procreative complementarity of men and women as their sexual organs are designed for each other, something not true of gay sex.[1]

Paul was not alone in this judgment of the unnaturalness of homosexuality as such views were widespread in Greek, Roman, and Jewish literature. Plato spoke of sexual relations between men and between women as “contrary to nature.”[2] Diodorus Siculus called homoerotic relationships “a marriage against nature”.[3] Ovid had a girl involved in a same sex relationship say “nature does not will it.”[4] Pseudo–Lucian wrote about “a sacred law of necessity that each should retain its own nature and that neither should the female grow unnaturally masculine nor the male be unbecomingly soft.”[5] Josephus rhetorically asked, “Why do not the Eleans and Thebans unleash that unnatural desire, which makes men engage in sexual intercourse?” and he argues that the sexual habits of Greek gods was simply a mythic story used to justify “unnatural pleasures.”[6] In the ethically rigorous 2 Enoch we read: “This place [i.e. hell], O Enoch, is prepared for those who dishonour God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion.”[7] Philo says of the men of Sodom that not only did they engage in adultery, but “men mounted men, suffering defilement, and not respecting nature.” As a result God, in his mercy, increased “the natural desire of men and women for a union together, for the sake of producing children, and detesting the unnatural and unlawful deeds of the people of Sodom.”[8] In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the audience is exhorted not to be like the people of Sodom who, when it came to sex, “exchanged the order of its nature.”[9] Finally, in Pseudo-Phocylides, roughly contemporary with Paul, one reads the injunction: “Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse of male with male. And let women not imitate the sexual role of men.”[10] The same perspective continued into the early church.[11] John Chrysostom, commenting on Rom 1:26-27, says that perpetrators of homosexual acts “dishonored that which was natural, they ran after that which was contrary to nature,” and he does not mince his words when he avers the reason why, “their doctrine [was] Satanical, and their life too was diabolical.”[12]

The appeal to nature in this literature requires some earnest reflection. The realm and experience that is called “nature” is not a neutral sphere. What is regarded as “nature” and “natural” is very much constructed on the basis of a particular cultural framework. For instance, those of us with access to the Discovery Channel may think of “nature” as a thing of wonder and beauty to behold. Yet for those who are forced to etch out a pre-industrial living in the Amazonian rainforest, they may regard “nature” as an enemy of one’s mortal existence and something that is savage as it is inescapable. In Stoic philosophy the natural world is divine, so that natura was a virtual god, known by common instinct, and ingrained within the very fabric of one’s own being. For the Stoics, natural law directs people to select what is natural and to reject what is contrary to nature. Virtue consists of acting in accordance with the law of nature. Moreover, people have tried to argue that all sorts of things are authoritative, normative, and true because they accord with nature, ranging from Capitalism to Marxism, from egalitarianism to patriarchy. In fact, the argument against homosexual practices from nature can be turned on its head. Many today will argue that homosexuality is natural because it is programmed into people’s genetic make-up and that gay dolphins and gay penguins somehow legitimate homosexual behavior for homosapiens. In all of these appeals to nature we must be cognizant of the fact that “nature” is a culturally constructed and linguistically freighted entity; not a self-evident and universal norm known immediately to all. What is more, we should also heed various logical fallacies in applying nature to ethics. First, the deontic fallacy in that it is logically impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that the gayness or straightness of dolphins proves only that dolphins have certain sexual habits; it does not thereby condemn or legitimate human gayness or straightness. Second, the naturalistic fallacy entails that the qualities of “right” and “wrong” are themselves non-natural entities and are derived from other beliefs, and not deduced from observing empirical phenomena. In other words, it is impossible to derive an ethical prescription from a mere description of natural processes.

That caveat about nature aside, we have to remember that for Paul and for Jewish thought more broadly, “nature” stands for the created order of things designed and put into effect by God and which showcases God’s very own glory.[13] For Paul, then, “nature” is divine architecture and doxological theatre. If we take Rom 1:26-28, 1 Cor 7:1-40, 11:1-16 together, then it is clear that sexuality was intrinsic to human bodily existence and that heterosexuality was part of the divinely created order for humanity. Departures from the norm of God’s creation represent defiance against the Creator and foreshadow the divine wrath soon to follow. To suppress the truth about the one God who made the heavens and the earth invariably leads to a rejection of God’s design for sex as a means of partnership and procreation between men and women. Paul’s appeal to nature is not based on the pantheism and natural law theory of Stoic philosophy, but rests squarely in his creational monotheism. Richard Hays puts it well: “The understanding of ‘nature’ in this conventional language does not rest on an empirical observation of what actually exists; instead, it appeals to an intuitive conception of what ought to be, of the world as designed by God. Those who indulge in sexual practices para physin are defying the creator and demonstrating their own alienation from him.”[14]


[1] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 254.

[2] Plato, Laws 1.2 (636 B-C).

[3] Diodorus Siculus, Hist.

[4] Ovid, Metamorpheses 9.758.

[5] Ps.-Lucian, Erotes 19.

[6] Josephus, Apion 2.273-75 (own trans.).

[7] 2 Enoch 10.4.

[8] Philo, Abraham 135, 137 (own trans.).

[9] T.Naph. 3.4

[10] Ps.-Phocylides, Sentences 190-93.

[11] Cf. Polycarp, Phil. 5.3; Aristides, Apology 17; Acts of Thomas 6.55; Tertullian, Resurrection of the Flesh 16.6; Clement of Alexandria, Padogogos;

[12] John Chrysostom, Hom. Rom.

[13] Cf. discussion in Samuel H. Dresner, “Homosexuality and the Order of Creation,” Judaism 40 (1991): 309-21.

[14] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation (New York: Harper One, 1996), 194.


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  • Richard Fellows

    You refer to “homosexuality” and “gayness”, but there were no such words in the ancient world. In fact it was normal (at least for men) to be attracted to members of both sexes. “Bisexuality” (for want of a better word) was the norm in the Greco-Roman world, as also in the Sodom story. Given the prevalence of bisexual practice, it would be surprising if Paul condemned only those who practiced exclusively same-gender sex while ignoring, for example, Roman married men who had boys on the side. Is it not more likely that in Rom 1:26-27 Paul is caricaturing the behaviors of normal Greco-Roman bisexuals, which were pretty sordid by all accounts?

    Secondly, in Rom 1:26-27 Paul is not giving ethical teaching on sexuality, is he? He is not describing same-gender sex as a sin (though he surely thought it often was one). Rather, he is describing it as a punishment for paganism. So all we can say is that Paul thought that at least some (most?) same-gender sex that was practiced by pagan society was unnatural/shameless/degrading and was a punishment from God. While we would love to know what Paul thought about gay marriage, I think we need to recognize that his writings do not address the issue, and it is doubtful that he was even aware of the concept.

    • Richard, your argument would work (here and for Leviticus 18&20) if the biblical authors were writing in a void. Negative prohibitions remains uselessly punctiliar without a context. However, Paul’s sexual ethic is grounded in the normative narrative of Genesis 1&2 (e.g. Eph.5:31). Hence, Romans 1, 1 Tim. 2, 1 Cor 6. etc. are all applications or implications of the broader, proscriptive norm, not isolates. And hence, gay marriage, it can be simply deduced, would’ve been abhorrent to Paul.

    • Nero was an example of same-sex marriage in the ancient world, and I’m pretty sure he and Paul didn’t see eye-to-eye on the matter.

      Secondly, Paul isn’t condemning “homosexuality” or “gayness.” That’s a red herring, as Paul isn’t talking about “sexuality” or “orientation” at all. He’s asserting that homosexual acts are immoral without reference to whether committed by a bisexual or homosexual. Just as Paul’s condemnation of extramarital heterosexual sex isn’t a condemnation of heterosexuality, his condemnation of homosexual acts is not addressing the question of sexual orientation but sexual behavior.

      • Richard Fellows

        Great discussion!

        Robert, Eph 5:31 quotes Gen 2:24, “a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife…”, but this hardly shows that Paul thought that the sexual practices of Gen 1-2 were prescriptive for all. If Paul had taken Gen 2:21 to be prescriptive he would not have upheld singleness as the highest calling. In any case Paul probably did not write Eph 5:31.

        Jason, Nero provides no example of a gay marriage in the sense that we use the term. He was already married to Acte when he”married” the boy Sporus after castrating him. See Suteonius: Nero XXVIII-XXIV.

        If, hypothetically, someone had explained the concept of gay marriage to Paul, would he have allowed it? The answer might have been “yes” even if he felt that same-gender sex was inherently abhorrent (which is doubtful). After all, he preferred singleness, but was pragmatic enough to allow (heterosexual) marriage as a means to prevent promiscuity (1 Cor 7). Would he not have supported any couple’s decision to commit to care for each other and not sleep around?

        I think Michael needs to do more to explain his logic in his final paragraph. There seem to be quite a few assumptions lurking there.

        • I was referring more to Nero’s marriage to Pythagoras than the Sporus example. Whether he was already married to another person prior to this isn’t really relevant as polygamy wasn’t uncommon, as you know.

          As for your latter question, as Foucault and others have shown, the dichotomy (or trichotomy) of homo/heterosexuality (plus bisexuality if the trichotomy) is extremely problematic. Sexual attraction/orientation is a spectrum, while the notion of a fixed sexual orientation as inherent to a person’s identity is largely a construct of the Victorian Era. I suspect Paul would have rejected the notion of fixed sexuality as an “identity” and would have focused on behaviors (as he does in his letters anyway). Paul rejects homosexual acts (behavior) rather than any sort of identity or orientation underlying these acts.

          That is, Paul does not condemn homosexuality, he condemns homosexual acts, and I don’t think that would change were he familiar with today’s popular views—which are themselves theoretically problematic—on homo/heterosexual identity. (They had similar notions in the ancient world anyway, as the Symposium illustrates—though from centuries earlier, it was plenty current in the first century.)

          I do think the last paragraph could use some additional explanation, if for nothing other than clarity.

  • Very helpful Michael. I thank God for your position on these issues and willingness to express a view deeply unpopular.

  • David

    Thank you for your helpful and thoughtful exegetical work on a emotionally charged topic. When can we expect the book to be published? Who are the contributors? I expect a creational theological framework for understanding male and female sexuality would need to be etsablished as a legitimate hermeneutical presupposition along side careful exegetical expositons of the key biblical evidence. I pray your contribution helps to shed biblical light and promote a resposnible and irenic response to the assumptions and arguments put forward by ‘revisionist’ exegetes who question accepted hermeneutical assumptions and exegetical conclusions in a sincere pursuit of truth.

  • Inchristus

    Phil Payne in chapter 8 “1 Corinthians 11:4: The Disgrace of a Man “Having Down from the Head” of his Man and Woman: One in Christ shows the importance of understanding the background of Corinth and the situation Paul is addressing. Fourteen reasons are given to show the expression “hanging down from the head” is addressing “long, effeminate hair (or its homosexual symbolism)” on men as disgraceful. Since Christ is man’s source (1 Cor 11:3), then having hair like a woman undermines not only marriage, but blurs the lines of sexual distinction between men and women, thus bringing shame on the work of Christ in creation. (From my summary series)

    Similarly, I might add that having same-sex relations is another defiant means of blurring the lines of the creative order.

  • Austin


    Quick question though on the heterosexuality as the “divinely created order” for humanity: what about celibacy? This is something I often wonder. It’s not as if the celibate (Paul himself!) gets rid of sexuality, is it? I mean, they’re still human. And if they don’t, then they’re not fulfilling the divinely created order, are they? Doesn’t this make celibate “contra to nature”?

    I’d be interested in how you understand this.

  • Hey Prof. Bird,

    I’d love to know what you think of this definition of “nature” in Paul (which I used in a class I recently finished on creation theology at my church):

    “Nature” (physis) in Paul stands for cultural convention in keeping with creation order.

    The benefit of this definition is twofold, in my opinion. It protects from to misinterpretations of the use of “nature” in Paul. The first misinterpretation is that the natural is the identical with trans-cultural creation order (a problem when looking at head coverings in 1 Cor 11). The second misinterpretation is that the natural is merely cultural convention (a problem when looking at Paul’s critique of homosexuality in Rom 1).

    “Nature” in Pauline usage is neither cultural convention or creation order. But it stands for cultural convention in keeping with creation order. Fair enough?

  • candeux

    “To suppress the truth about the one God who made the heavens and the earth invariably leads to a rejection of God’s design for sex as a means of partnership and procreation between men and women.”

    Are you (or Paul) saying that atheism/paganism inevitably leads to homosexuality? Certainly there are plenty of counterexamples to that. What about those who engage in same-sex relationships who do not fit this pattern (e.g., Christians)? How do they fit into this discussion?

    Even if it is appropriate to take Paul’s statements about the nature of same-sex relationships out of the context (descent from idolatry and atheism), what is the evidence that he was referring to monogamous relationships between two people who have had a same-gender orientation since birth (or thereabouts)? The words “exchanged” and “abandoned” (NIV) suggest heterosexuals who were going against their nature.

  • Rob


    Thanks for your thoughts on this weighty passage for the contemporary discussion. I agree for the most part on what you say; however, it is what you do not say that I would like to inquire more about.

    – First, how do vv. 26-27 relate to v. 23? That is to say the verses seem to be intrinsically tied to one another. S. Stowers and subsequently D. Martin, whom I am sure you have read, have argued that this is directly related to idol worship and therefore since, “Paul’s assumption [is] that homosexuality is punishment for idolatry and polytheism” [Sex and the Single Savior, 55]. I wonder how you take this connection, indicated by the “δίa” leading v. 26? This also seems to have implications for the relation of this passage to the creation narrative or if it is more specifically related to idolatry. Often nature and the created order seem to be linked. I am not saying this is bad or good, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue that is dealt with in your piece.

    – Second, If you will allow me a little explanation, I promise you I am asking a question!! You seem to state in passing that παρά φυσίν is best translated as, “contrary to nature, “[assumedly] rather than beyond nature. I agree with your conclusions regarding the “nature” of nature, so to speak. However, I am not so confident that it is the best translation. In my thesis on Paul’s use of passion, it seems that both Jewish and Greco-Roman authors saw that one’s actions stemmed from the passions [hunger, sexual passion, et al] Thus, gluttony or sexual activities stem from the corresponding passion. However, in most Greco-Roman writings reason functions as the moderator of the passions [including Philo], whereas in Jewish authors [including Philo — he is a tricky one!] often allows Torah to be the moderator of the passions (see mostly 4 Macc.). As such, the natural state is one that is in line with temperance and an unnatural state is one beyond nature (and in a Jewish context beyond Torah). In light of this, I wonder if the arguement of the exact translation of “contrary to nature” or “beyond nature” becomes unnecessary since, according to Paul, anything that betrayed Torah would in itself be something condemnable. My question comes in why do you see the term as best translated in that manner, and how does that aid your understanding of the text in a manner that beyond nature would not?

    – This one is short! In so many circles Gagnon is very divisive. Why cite him? I would love this piece to be a positive contribution to a difficult and inflamed topic. The inclusion of his citation doesn’t seem to aid your argument much, and may cause more harm than good. Just a thought.

  • How convenient it must be to form opinions when you quote only people who agree with you (like Gagnon, who is rabidly antigay) and refuse to consider any other viewpoints. This is a shoddy analysis. I expect better.

  • Cacafuego

    Dr. Bird, Regarding the deontic fallacy, it seems here that Paul doesn’t just affirm the existence of a law written on all men’s heart, but actually uses natural law argumentation — getting an ought from an is (as in other passages, like on head coverings). Are you affirming both the fallaciousness and the efficacy of such argumentation at the same time? (Time for me to go ask a Thomist, as they’ve been hammering on this for a while.)

    • Paul does not affirm the existence of a law written on all hearts. That passage is a reference to Jeremiah’s promise of a “new covenant” with Israel & Judah, which will be marked by God writing his law on the hearts of those brought into the covenant. It has long been read as a natural law passage, but that reading doesn’t pay attention to the context and echoes present in the passage, nor to the general direction of Paul’s argument in that section of Romans.

  • JB

    Prof. Bird,
    Your post was rather helpful for identifying the use of “nature” amongst Second Temple and Greco-Roman sources; however, might Paul have a different background in mind? In Pauline vernacular, “nature” has little to do with creation proper or moral law and more do with Jewish covenantal ethnicity and identity (cf. Gal. 2:15; Rom. 2:14, 27; 11:21, 24). Contextually, in Romans 1, Paul is developing a Sodom and Gomorrah motif against Jewish covenant infidelity identical to that of the Prophets and his own remarks in Rom 9-11. Within this motif, Paul’s use of “nature” is to say that the vices of Rom. 1:26-30 run against the Jewish ethic, informed not least by Torah. See Kevin Bywater’s dissertation (Durham) and the helpful, though slightly misguided works by Philip Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 150 and Philip F. Esler, “The Sodom Tradition in Romans 1:18-32,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 34 (2004): 4-16.

  • newenglandsun

    If “nature” refers to the divine way that god has set things up, then it would also be beneficial to note that god also does things contrary to “nature” (Rom. 11:24). This taken in notice, the complementarian view of things that you derive at from 1 Cor. 11:1-16 needs to be noted that this was also Paul’s way of viewing “proper” relationships between men and women. I think it highly likely that Paul carried over patriarchal values into his NT writings and hence, why he viewed the acts as contrary to nature in Rom. 1:26-27. This is the problem with the complementarian view. It gives us an outdated philosophy in regard to how men and women relate to one another. It also is what made me a sexist in my high school days.

  • A

    Paul uses it in long hair when in the N.T since Greece men had to cut hair and yet Paul had long hair. God uses it to describe Jewish and Christian so to use it was only used for roman is in corrected. It wasn’t a sin to have long hair but it was wrong to the Greece to have long hair where Paul was he cut his hair.

  • A

    And yet you seem to forget that Paul used Para Physin in men with long hair and yet he had long hair before cutting it for when he was going to Corthians. Why did he cut it off if it was not a sin. It was cultural unacceptable not a sin for Para Physin was used for God . Paul was stating it was cultural unacceptable and nature does show us Homosexuality is nature by Nature acceptable. Do u homework. Nazitive Vow men and women grew their hair for a exten period of time and cut it all off after they were done. So men normally had long hair . John the Baptist was born into this vow so his hair must have been long . Physin is used for Paul talking about hair so to say being Gay is unnatural while forgetting Paul using natural for men with long hair void your argument . For it was culturally acceptable for men to have long hair in Jewish but not in the Greek Culture . Men had to get it cut they could not let it grow.