What is Paul really talking about in the first chapter of Romans?
Let’s start with Romans 1:18 to try to understand what Paul is really talking about here. I think it helps to actually start “from the top”, as it were.
In verse 18, Paul starts to talk about a group of people and this is how he identifies them:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness..”
Who is he talking about here? He’s talking about “godless” and “wicked” people, in general.
In v. 21 he says those same people’s thinking, “became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened”.
Then he says in v. 22 that those same people “claimed to be wise but became fools”.
And in v. 23 he says that they: “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”
That is idol worship.
In summary, these wicked and godless people denied the knowledge of God and began to worship idols.
Because of this:
“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.” [v.24]
So, because they denied God and worshipped idols God’s response was to give them over to “shameful desires of their hearts…for the degrading of their bodies with one another.”
Please Note: Sexual intercourse in pagan temples was quite common in the worship of idols. This is what Paul is referring to here, and he continues to describe this in verse 25:
“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.”
This is all about idol worship and it involved sexual intercourse. What Paul is condemning here is the use of sexual intercourse as part of the worship of created things, or idols.
Lust is lust. Ritual pagan sex qualifies as “degrading their bodies with one another” – whether gay or straight.
Now, Paul continues his progressive thought by saying, in verse 26:
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.”
Ok, wait…because of what? Because these people – who were engaged in worshipping pagan idols – started degrading their bodies with one another in ritual sexual intercourse: “God gave them over to shameful lusts.”
So far, this would be bad no matter if the sex were gay or straight.
There’s a lot more to point out, but let me pause here a just a moment to say this:
I don’t know anyone who is gay due to the effects of worshipping idols through sexual intercourse.
Maybe those people exist, but I would venture to say that the majority of people who identify as being gay today did not end up that way because they used to engage in pagan sexual practices in the temples of Zeus or Artemis.
I don’t even know any gay people who feel attracted to people of the same sex due to denying that God exists. In fact, just the opposite, I know many people who identify as gay who profess saving faith in Christ and who even demonstrate the heart and character of Christ. They do not engage in “shameful desires of their hearts” any more than my straight Christian friends do. They also do not “worship and serve created things rather than the Creator”.
Having said that, let’s go back to Paul and continue the study.
After this Paul says,
“Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 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.”
Please try to follow the flow of Paul’s statements here:
There were people who denied God. They started to worship idols. That worship involved sexual intercourse. That intercourse aroused unnatural lusts. The end result was a judgment within their bodies for denying God and engaging in pagan ritual sex rites.
Keep in mind: anyone who is “inflamed with lust” is in sin – whether gay or straight. But Paul’s entire flow of thought begins with a discussion about those who deny God, worship created things rather than the creator, engage in ritual sexual intercourse as part of that worship, and then…BECAUSE OF THESE THINGS, God has judged them and given them over to their lusts.
Let me ask you: What if Paul’s descriptions here went like this:
*People denied God
*Those people worshipped idols
*They worshipped idols by engaging in male/female sex acts
Would you conclude that God hated male/female intercourse?
Why not? Isn’t that what people do when he goes on to describe their acts of homosexual intercourse?
If we don’t read Romans 1 as a de facto condemnation of straight sex [and the majority of the chapter is about straight sex], then why do we read it as a condemnation of gay sex acts?
Could it be because we have a bias against gay sex that we don’t have against straight sex?
If we lay aside our inherent bias against gay sex, we can see that Paul’s entire point is that the denial of God and the worship of idols through sexual intercourse [gay or straight] is what is “shameful” and not the type of sexual intercourse itself.
Sexual intercourse in the worship of idols is evil. This is Paul’s entire point.
Straight sex is not evil. What matters is the context. Is it between two people who love one another and who also love and trust in God? Then it isn’t what Paul is speaking of here in Romans 1.
My point is simply this: Romans 1 doesn’t try to provide any commentary on whether or not gay sexual intercourse is “good” or “evil”.
Paul’s purpose in Romans 1 isn’t to explain why homo/hetero sex itself is wrong/right. His point would be exactly the same if he were describing straight sexual intercourse used in pagan ritual worship.
Does that make sense?
That same judgment they received would come equally to those who engaged in gay or straight sexual intercourse if it was for the purpose of pagan idol worship.
Believe it or not, there really are Christians who ARE gay, and they DO worship God and they DO love Jesus and they do NOT engage in fornication and they are NOT consumed by their lusts.
So, this passage does not apply to them.
In conclusion, I wish that I could introduce you to the gay and transgender Christians I know. If I could, you might find that these are not “perverts” or “abominations”. Instead, you might see what I have seen, which is an exceptional grace for people who shun them and marginalize them.
They are quick to even forgive family members who shame them. They are obedient to Jesus to pray for those Christians who slander them and call them names [like “pervert” for example] with tears in their eyes and pain in their heart.
I’ve seen Jesus in the lives of my gay and transgender brothers and sisters over the last few years in deeper and more profound ways than I believe I have ever seen in many of my straight Christian friends.
I hope to learn from them how to love and forgive and walk in grace and mercy towards everyone, even those brothers and sisters who cannot accept them for who they really are.
Keith Giles is the author of several books, including “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb”. He is also the co-host of the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. He and his wife live in Orange, CA with their two sons.
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