There has been a lot written about Paul’s words to the church in Rome as he summarizes the history of the human race. While some thinkers see this scripture as pertaining solely to Gentile culture, others see it more broadly as the way all cultures have failed to recognize God, the creator of the world and the judge of all unrighteousness, and that is the position I find myself prone to take. The reason for a more broad approach is because I think a reader of the Old Testament can easily see that idolatry and dehumanization was just as prevalent in Israel as it was in the surrounding “pagan” kingdoms. In fact, Old Testament scholars point out that at any given time in the history of Israel, monotheistic loyalty to Yahweh was never fully established, and the chasing after other gods was a reality present throughout the history of the wilderness wanderings, the time of the Judges, and the monarchy…not to mention a cited reason for the fall of Israel and then Judah, Northern and Southern kingdoms, once divided.
So, Paul addresses the scene that has played out amongst all nations; and particularly, the downward spiral from the intended and godly purpose of humanity to what we have made of ourselves. Of particular interest to us today is the notion of natural and unnatural relationships cited in this text which leads us to a discussion of human sexuality, sexual freedom, and homosexuality. Here is the text of Romans from the NLT:
Romans 1:24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
Needless to say, this text is extremely controversial and has been used to condemn homosexuals, to contrast the type of homosexuality practiced today from ancient practices, and to particularly condemn those who switch back and forth from heterosexual practices to homosexual practices. Yet, what we need to do when studying a text like this is to remember that Paul was addressing the particular situation in Rome, and after extracting the principles and lessons that he wanted to communicate there, we can properly move from the ancient world into ours in an effort to understand what this text means in our contemporary world.
An aspect of this text I want to point out is that Paul is not speaking of individual choices nor individual behaviors nor individual morality. Paul is speaking about a culture of idolatry in humanity at large. This is to say that Paul is not interested in case study or a small scale sample, he has seized on the human condition of worshipping the wrong things and being deceived to think that that worship of lesser beings would bring about the same ends as the worship of God.
For Paul, this worship of lesser things has resulted in a damaged relationship to God, each other, and the creation as a whole. Particularly, Paul cites the sexual practices that were currently happening in Roman pagan culture as a direct result of inaccurate worship. Humanity has “traded the truth of God for a lie” and in so doing they have treated each other’s bodies as objects to be explored and exploited. This argument is “that the existence of homosexual practice in a culture is a sign that that culture as a whole has been worshipping idols and that its God-given male-and-female order is being fractured as a result.” (NT Wright, Romans, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.435)
While it is evident that Paul regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intentions for sex and sexuality, and while we might agree or disagree with Paul given what we have studied about human sexuality and psychology; what we cannot do is simply sidestep this passage when it comes to Christian ethics and what it says about culture and accepted practices of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual to be inclusive, in any given culture. However, if we are going to take the citation of homosexuality seriously in the passage above, then we must also head the warning against innate moral superiority that is coming in the next section of scripture starting in Romans 2. That is to say, while some participate in dehumanizing behaviors through “shameful desires of the heart,” others stand aloof to these practices as if they are outside the widespread problem of sin…as if only “those” people sin and “we” do not. Paul finds this to be complete nonsense and a type of unrighteousness that is just as damaging to the human condition. (So, Paul would categorize any attempt to condemn and hurt a homosexual for being such alongside the very practice of homosexuality—“falling short of God’s glory”)
A phrase that gets special attention is at the end of verse 27, “They suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” While some commentators will point to modern sexually transmitted diseases or even make mention of AIDS in this context, I don’t think Paul had any specific disease in mind. Paul is making reference to the fact that the end of sin is DEATH. I think that becomes clear in the following paragraph and even later in Romans where Paul would assert that sin pays you in death…(“the wages of sin is death” - Romans 6:23). I think it is also telling that Paul, along with other Jewish thinkers would see DEATH as a separation and isolation from God, from each other, and from creation (or the natural world) and less of an event at the end of a life. So, in the second paragraph of our text above, we see God hand them over yet again, showing a growing separation between God and humanity. We see examples of relationships being torn apart in the actions associated with… sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip…and even the “disobeying of parents.” Again, we see this as a result of idolatry, moving to dehumanizing behaviors that then play out in our relationships… As it pertains to the natural world and creation, Paul would argue that men were made to naturally fit with women and that women were designed by God to naturally fit with men. And therefore, what we have is, “DEATH” and the process of dying that started when humanity decided to not worship God or even give him thanks, and they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused…
I want to end with some questions for us to ponder:
Today’s reading has me thinking about 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 in which Paul expresses concern about what the Corinthians have come to believe and practice. It seems that the gift of grace that God provided has been used to perpetuate a notion of liberty that was not intended in the gift. What I mean to say is that Paul is concerned that ideas about the body, sexual relationships, and our relationship with Christ must be addressed among the Christians at Corinth.
They seem to love maxims, short sayings to live by, or proverbial statements. Paul references a few in our passage:
“I am allowed to do anything!” or “Everything is permissible for me!”
“Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food!”
These slogans or maxims were referenced by Paul, we assume, because the people knew them and lived by them. Yet, Paul qualifies these sayings because, as you probably already know, a proverb or maxim is helpful in certain contexts and situations, but are not entirely universally true. And so Paul qualifies “I am allowed to do anything,” with “but not everything is good for you,” and “I must not become a slave to anything.” Paul goes on to qualify the maxim, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” with a more chilling response, “someday God will do away with both of them.”
Yet, this moves Paul to what seems to be the real point. Apparently some of Corinthians christians live by a maxim that says, “Our bodies are made to have sex, and so having sex is what our bodies must do!” And there were many opportunities for sexual activities in that city. If you would like to understand more about the city of Corinth and sexual practices, there has been much study done about that. But for this moment, Paul is not concerned with the cultural practices surrounding the Christian church, but Paul asserts the reality that they have entered into a relationship with Jesus. This relationship is not haphazard nor is it flippant…it is a covenant relationship that looks a lot like marriage (see Hosea 1-3; Ezekiel 16). Here is the entire passage from the New Living Translation:
12 You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. 13 You say, “Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them.) But you can’t say that our bodies were made for sexual immorality. They were made for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies. 14 And God will raise us from the dead by his power, just as he raised our Lord from the dead.
15 Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” 17 But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.
18 Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. 19 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.
I like this contemporary reflection on the passage: “In our individualistic society and culture, Paul’s claim that ‘you are not your own’ will seem decidedly alien. Are we not in charge of our own lives? Can we not do as we see fit? Our own self-control is a fiction that we struggle to maintain. For Paul and indeed for everyone in his time, nobody was without a master, a lord to whom they were in some measure responsible…Some modern people, giving lip service to equality, find a horizontal image preferable; but in reality modern culture is stratified—and that not just economically—much more severely than we sometimes may want to acknowledge.” (J.P. Sampley, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, 866-67)
I think modern Christians must wrestle with the same notion that our ancient brothers and sisters did…We are not as independent and strong as we think we are, and perhaps sex and sexual experiences have us torn between faithfulness to Jesus and thinking that we are just participating in what our bodies were made to do. Paul’s words still ring true, “Glory God in your body!” Freedom is not without a lord (aka “is not free”), but the Lord offers freedom in that you, me, the self, our bodies, can be rescued from shame to the splendor and magnificence of that which God created! For Christians: your body is a temple, a sacred space where God lives.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.