Romans 1:18-32 is one of the most important passages in scripture, because it describes the nature of sin. Specifically, it shows how idolatry is the foundation for injustice, and moreover, how sin always cascades into deeper forms of corruption. This passage is one of the most prominent biblical proof-texts against homosexuality, but the mention of same-sex practices is incidental to Paul’s larger points in the passage. Ironically, if we recognize the larger points that Paul is making about sin, then this passage actually becomes the basis for exonerating LGBT identity.
Yesterday when I was contemplating this passage, I noticed the way that it completely dismantles two critical toxicities in mainstream pop evangelical theology.
1) Original sin is social, not biological
One of the most nihilistic, toxic teachings of pop Christianity is that people are born wicked. This teaching originated with Augustine after he read a Latin mistranslation of Romans 5:12. Augustine thought that Paul had written that all humanity had sinned with Adam as primordial seed within his semen. For years, the Catholic church taught that original sin was literally passed onto babies through the semen of the father. Thus, Mary had to receive an immaculate conception and have a virgin birth so that Jesus could be born without original sin.
When you teach that original sin is biological, then anything you don’t want to accept about human genetics can be attributed to “fallen creation.” Adam’s sin is made into the cause of people being born with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. God didn’t create them that way; sin did.
But that’s not the story that Romans 1 tells. Paul insists that humanity is “without excuse” (v. 20) since “what can be known about God is plain to them” (v. 19). He could not make this statement if he believed that we were born with a “fallen nature” that makes us unable to see and worship God. Rather, we are corrupted by being born into a world that has “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (v. 23), i.e. a world awash in a sea of idolatry.
Idolatry means to “worship and serve creation rather than the Creator” (v. 25), whether our idols are actual physical statues or abstractions like money, success, patriotism, political correctness, etc. It is the idolatry of our world that prevents us from finding our joy in the beauty and comfort of God. Without the spiritual security of that divine foundation, we are handed over to “degrading passions” (v. 26).
Paul uses the visceral image of the orgy practices of Roman society to capture the degrading passions to which humanity resorts when trapped in a world of idolatry. These orgy practices include, but are not limited to, same-gendered sex. The key question is whether the same-gendered aspect of the orgy practices is itself the problem or if it’s the whole thing which includes adultery, promiscuity, etc.
The basic truth captured by Romans 1 is the way that our desires occur in a skewed frame of reference because of the omnipresence of idolatry. This is particularly true in a world where capitalism has manipulated us from birth to want what we don’t naturally want so that somebody can make money off of us. We’ve been socialized to think of identity in consumerist terms. If I buy this music, this fashion, this brand of beer, that defines who I am as a person.
This skewed frame of reference for desire is also true about our sexual socialization. Social factors like the widespread use of sex in marketing over the past several decades and the rise of the internet porn industry has left people in our culture with a very confused and unnatural sense of sexuality. When sex becomes just another consumable object like food, then it loses its power as a means of establishing spiritual intimacy between two people.
Now, sexual traditionalists would argue at this point that LGBT identity is just a fad created by the market, an unnatural desire formed by our skewed frame of reference. Plenty of scientific research suggests this is not the case. Ultimately, I take the stance that I cannot ever know and should not speculate whether someone else’s sexual identity is authentically intrinsic or an imposed socialization. I choose to respect what people say about themselves rather than rejecting any professed identity that makes my world too complicated.
So is LGBT sexuality “against nature”? Thankfully Paul provides us with a litmus test to discern what are degrading passions like those described in Romans 1:26-27, which brings me to the second major point.
2) Sin is evil because of corruption not inconformity
What’s wrong with “unnatural” desires? Is it simply that God has an arbitrary way he likes to see things done, and it’s a test of our loyalty whether we’re willing to submit? Many evangelical Christians would say that sin is sin because it violates “God’s design.” But that’s not the argument we see in Romans 1.
What happens to the people who pursue degrading passions with their bodies is that they are “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice” (v. 29). They are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness.” They are “gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventers of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (v. 30).
These toxic character qualities bubble up quickly in a community built around unhealthy, addictive behaviors like promiscuous sex and drug use. I know this first hand. Fourteen years ago, I lived in a debaucherous artists’ colony in Toledo, Ohio. I became a toxic person because of all the ways that I was self-medicating my depression and anxiety. God chose to rescue me from this spiritually toxic lifestyle through a mostly LGBT United Methodist church a few blocks down the street from where I lived. Unlike me, they were not toxic, which is why I find it completely ironic to apply Romans 1:26-27 to their lifestyle instead of mine.
Paul gives us a very clear litmus test for whether someone’s sexuality is a degrading passion or not. If it’s a degrading passion, they will be filled with “every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice,” and every other toxic character quality in verses 29-31. That’s what happens to the community that Paul is talking about in Romans 1. The reason degrading passions are degrading is not because of their inconformity to an established norm, but because they corrupt our hearts and drag us into deeper levels of sin.
If you want to claim that Paul is talking about LGBT people in verses 26-27, then you have to be willing to say that all LGBT people exhibit the toxic character qualities in verses 29-31. Anti-gay Christian scholar Robert Gagnon is comfortable making this claim. In his reading of Romans 1, he insists that same-sex attraction itself is sinful, because it’s a result of the idolatry at the beginning of the cascade of sin. So Gagnon would say that you cannot be acceptable as a celibate LGBT Christian; you must renounce your LGBT identity altogether.
Indeed, Gagnon’s position is the one that must be taken if verses 26-27 are about LGBT identity itself rather than being about sex orgies. The idea that LGBT Christians are okay as long as they’re celibate is a biblically unjustifiable compromise made by evangelicals when it became untenable to tell LGBT people to “pray away the gay.” Gagnon emphatically rejects this compromise.
However, since I’ve met too many LGBT people who are plainly not filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, I have concluded that Paul is not condemning LGBT identity itself in Romans 1. When I was filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, it was an LGBT church that nurtured me back to health. Spiritual toxicity can arise in the LGBT community just like any other community. But I’ve met far too many holy LGBT people to conclude that being LGBT makes you toxic.