The key to understanding any passage in the Bible is surely grasping the author’s intent. And that is why we need to look closely at Romans 1 if we’re going to grasp what the Bible says about same-sex marriage and homosexuality more generally. Because nowhere in the New Testament is there stronger or more direct language related to homosexuality and same-sex sexual relations.
Romans 1:26,27: For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Now there are nuanced and strongly contested arguments that Paul isn’t talking about the kinds of same-sex relationships we find in the contemporary church. But a reader of almost any translation will conclude that for Paul both homosexuality and same-sex sexual relations belonged with a long list of reprehensible practices that he makes in verses 28 to 32. And I would say that this is hardly surprising given his cultural upbringing.
Yet to understand Paul’s intention in these verses we can’t simply read verses 26 to 32 as a laundry list of unrighteousness. The first words in the NRSV translation of verse 26 make that clear. “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.”
Pauls description of unrighteous attitudes and behaviors in versus 26-32 is a description of what happens when God “gives up” people to their own devices. They are what happens when God, keeping God’s covenant with Israel, walks out on those who have rejected him. It is what happens when we demand autonomy and freedom and God gives it to us.
But God doesn’t just do this. God does it “for this reason.” And to find what the reason is we must go back to verse 18, but in particular verse 21-23: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” and verse 25: “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
In other words Paul’s intention is not to delineate types of sin, but to remind the Romans of what happens when humans ignore God and instead worship idols. Idolatry is the root problem here. A failure to worship the one true God inevitably results in a “debased mind.” And that, Paul will conclude in Romans 2, is the inescapable inheritance of all who are not (he will point out in chapter 12) transformed by the renewing of their minds. It is only such a renewal then allows us to discern what is the will of God, “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
And here we have the quandary when it comes to same-sex relations and the church. Those who are seeking the legitimization in church law of same sex relationships are not, first of all, ignorant idol worshippers. Paul’s direct line from worshipping creatures to a debased mind isn’t evident in their lives and acting as if it is simply insults the intelligence. The most one can say is that they share just those limitations shared by their fellow Christians.
Whoever Paul is thinking of in this passage it isn’t those men and women even now attending seminary, or quietly pastoring churches, or in many cases serving as active and engaged lay leaders. Indeed, they and their allies claim that they possess precisely the renewed mind that is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and can in fact discern what is good, acceptable, and perfect. To cast them as characters from Romans 1:26-27 inevitably appears like cruelty that strains credulity.
Unless, of course, you believe that however winsome their lives their disobedience to God’s order clearly indicates a fundamental unwillingness to listen to “God’s decree.”
And this disconnect gets us to the deeper problem of using this passage to discuss same-sex relations in the church.
Paul is offering a natural theology rational for rejecting homosexuality and same-sex relations: they are an unnatural distortion of God’s natural order for humanity flowing from the willful rejection of the creator and thus a debased mind incapable of understanding God’s order and conforming to it.
But contemporary proponents of same sex marriage argue that science teaches us that homosexuality and same-sex relations are in fact part of the natural order God created. Accepting them is in fact to be more rational than accepting Paul’s rejection of them.. His theological explanation of and rejection of this wholly natural phenomena is simply a relic of his pre-modern worldview, not unlike his understanding of the subordination of women in marriage.
So once again we find the complex problem of how to deal with those places in scripture where statements about the natural order (that are theoretically testable by common reason) are embedded in special revelation whose truth can be grasped only with the aid of the Holy Spirit.
Until we have some consensus concerning the criteria for teasing out these distinctions, and thus differentiating between those assertions in scripture that can be legitimately questioned by science and those that must be accepted by faith, we will have no possibility of engaging in a meaningful dialogue about sexuality and same-sex marriage.
But as I’ve noted in other blogs, this has nothing to do with whether scripture has authority, or even how that authority is exercised in the church. It arises because we have yet to reach a consensus on the appropriate hermeneutic for and authority of statements about the natural order embedded in special revelation.