In our exposition of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we come now to this astonishingly relevant section in Romans 1:24–28 where Paul touches on the reality of homosexuality. It is relevant for many reasons. For example, yesterday there was conference called “Here I Stand” to address the issue of homosexually active clergymen in the ELCA (Star Tribune, 10/10/98).
On the front page of the Star Tribune there was the story of what appeared to be a hate crime against a homosexual student at the University of Wyoming who was in critical condition after being tied to a fence and beaten. In August, 641 Anglican bishops from around the world gathered for the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, and voted overwhelmingly to affirm that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Scripture.”
“The reality of homosexuality is inescapable today, and this should come as no surprise.”
Full-page ads were recently taken out in USA Today and the New York Times and the Washington Post showing some 850 former homosexuals who gathered last summer at the Exodus conference and who declared there is power in Christ to be changed. Here in Minnesota, legal cases continually crop up about child custody and adoption of children by homosexual people. And most immediate of all, here in our church there are people who have homosexual desires and many more people among us who have people in their families whom they care about very deeply who consider themselves homosexual. The reality of homosexuality is inescapable today, and this would come as no surprise to the apostle Paul, and therefore should not to us.
One of the things that makes matters unusual today is the effort on the part of some people to defend the legitimacy of homosexual behavior from the Bible. Most common, for example, is the claim that the denunciations of homosexuality in the New Testament are not references to committed, long-term homosexual relations, which these people say are legitimate, but rather refer to promiscuous homosexual relations and to pederasty, which are not legitimate. To use the words of one scholar,
What the New Testament is against is something significantly different from a homosexual orientation which some people seem to have from their earliest days. In other words, the New Testament is not talking about what we have come to speak of as sexual inversion. Rather, it is concerned with sexual perversion. (Paul Jewett, Interpretation, April, 1985, 210)
Denouncing Heterosexuals Engaging in Homosexuality?
With regard to our own text this morning, some would argue that what Paul is denouncing in Romans 1:26b–27 is heterosexual people forsaking what is natural for them and engaging in promiscuous homosexual relations which are unnatural for them. Paul writes,
Their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts.
So, the argument goes, it is not unnatural when a homosexual person has homosexual relations, it is only unnatural when heterosexual persons have homosexual relations and (by implication) homosexual persons have heterosexual relations.
There are at least three major problems with this way of interpreting these verses. I will mention them because the last one will take us into the overall exposition of this section of Romans. The first problem is that in verse 27 Paul says, “The men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another.”
Now if these were men who were by nature heterosexual, and who were going against their natural desires, what is the meaning of “they burned in their desire toward one another”? It is a very strong term. Does a natural heterosexual burn with lust for another man? If not, it is very unlikely that what Paul is dealing with here is the subject of heterosexuals engaging in homosexuality.
There is such a thing as a bisexual, who seems to have desires for both men and women. But if that were in Paul’s mind, the interpretation we are talking about wouldn’t work either, because then the burning of a man for a man and a woman would both be natural (according to this interpretation), and Paul would be unjust to denounce either one. But he does denounce this unnatural burning and the acts that follow. So the argument doesn’t work that says, Paul is only denouncing homosexual acts by heterosexual people.
The second reason the argument doesn’t work is that when Paul says in verse 27b, “Their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,” the Greek phrase for “that which is unnatural” (ten para phusin) is a stock phrase in Greek ethical literature of the time for homosexual behavior per se, not for homosexual behavior among heterosexuals — as though that’s what made it unnatural.
So it is very unlikely that Paul is arguing that what’s wrong and unnatural about these folks is that they are heterosexuals by nature and acting contrary to nature by doing homosexual acts. “Contrary to nature” in this text, as it most Hellenistic literature of the time, meant homosexual behavior per se. That’s what Paul regards as unnatural.
The third argument against this kind of interpretation is the most significant, because it takes us into the deeper meaning of this text. But before I develop it, let me explain where we are going in these two weeks. My aim today is to give as sound and faithful an exposition of Romans 1:24–28 as I can, which will leave me little time for application. That is why I plan to continue the message next week. We will need to broaden our biblical base and to tackle some practical issues next week.
Pray for Biblical Balance
My prayer for both weeks is that we as a church, and I in particular as the preacher, will find a biblical balance between clear conviction about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, on the one hand, and patient compassion to come alongside those of you who have homosexual desires, and your friends and relatives, and seek your good. I have no desire to drive homosexual people away.
On the contrary, I would like to be able to say of our congregation what Paul said to the church in Corinth: after mentioning “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, swindlers,” he says in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
I would like us to be a church like that — justified sinners battling together to walk in purity, with all of our differing genetic, hormonal, environmental disorders that incline every one of us, in varying ways, to do sinful things. We will talk more about that next week. It’s a very important issue. But the point for now is simply this: we want to be a church where homosexual people can either overcome their sexual disorder, or find the faith and courage and help and love and power to live a triumphant, joyful, celibate life with the disorder.
Three-fold Sequence of Thought
Now we turn to the third reason for rejecting the interpretation of Romans 1:26–27, which says that Paul is not denouncing homosexuals who do what comes naturally, but rather he is denouncing promiscuous heterosexuals who act unnaturally by doing homosexual acts. The reason is that the overall argument of the passage assumes another viewpoint.
Let’s look at it. Three times in this passage Paul repeats a three-fold sequence of thought. The three-fold sequence of thought goes like this:
Step 1: Human beings exchange God for what God has made; we prefer the creature to the Creator.
Step 2: God hands us over to what we prefer.
Step 3: We act out externally and bodily in our sexual relations a dramatization of the internal, spiritual condition of the fallen human soul, namely, the horrendous exchange of God for man and the images of our power.
Walk with me through the text. I will show you the three times that Paul gives us this sequence of thought.
First time through the three-fold sequence (verses 23–24)
Step 1: “They exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man . . .” (verse 23).
Step 2: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (verse 24).
Step 3: “. . . so that their bodies would be dishonored among them” (end of verse 24).
“The sexual disordering of the human race is a judgment of God for our exchanging him for the creature.”
In response to the rejection of God’s glory as their treasure, God wills that there be a disordering of their bodily life in dishonorable deeds. He hands them over to impurity “so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” The sexual disordering of the human race is a judgment of God for our exchanging him for the creature — all of us.
Second time through the same steps (verses 25–27)
Step 1: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (verse 25). This parallels verse 23: they exchanged the glory of God for images. The “truth of God” is that he is glorious and to be desired above all things. The “lie” preferred by us humans is that the creature is more desirable than God.
Step 2: “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions” (verse 26). That parallels verse 24: “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.”
Step 3: “For their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts” (verses 26b–27). That corresponds to verse 24b: “so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.” So the dishonoring of the body that Paul had in mind in verse 24 is specifically homosexual behavior. And notice carefully, now we can say more specifically than in the first sequence of thought: the sexual disordering of the human race, especially homosexuality (but not only homosexuality) is a judgment of God for our exchanging the truth of God for a lie.
Third time through the same three-fold sequence (verse 28)
Step 1: “They did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (verse 28). That corresponds to verses 23 and 25: they exchanged the glory of God for images and they exchanged the truth of God for a lie. They simply don’t want God in their knowledge anymore.
Step 2: “God gave them over to a depraved mind” (verse 28b). That corresponds to verse 24: “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” and verse 26, “God gave them over to degrading passions.” This was God’s response to the universal exchange of God for the creature.
Step 3: “[He gave them over . . .] to do those things which are not proper” (verse 28c). That corresponds to verse 24b: “so that their bodies would be dishonored among them,” and to verses 26b–27, where the women and the men are pursuing homosexual relations. So homosexual behavior is parallel with dishonoring the body and doing what is not proper.
Our Deepest Problem
Now let me close with four brief concluding statements:
First, the deepest problem of our lives, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is the terrible exchange of the glory of God for images (verse 23). The exchange of the truth of God for a lie (verse 25). The disapproval of having God in our knowledge (verse 28). Failed worship is our worst disorder. This is beneath all the maladies of the world. Repairing this, not first our disordered sexuality, is our main business in life.
Second, the sexual disordering of our lives, most vividly seen in homosexuality (though not only there), is the judgment of God upon the human race because we have exchanged the glory of God for other things. Sometimes people ask, “Is AIDS the judgment of God on homosexuality?” The answer from this text is: homosexuality itself is a judgment on the human race, because we have exchanged the glory of God for the creature — and so is AIDS and cancer and arthritis and Alzheimer’s and every other disease and every other futility and misery in the world, including death. That’s the point of Romans 5:15–18 and Romans 8:20–23, which we looked at when talking about Romans 1:18.
And what we saw there was that those who believe in Jesus Christ and are justified by faith and become the children of God are not taken out of this world of woe, but are given the grace to experience the very judgments of God on the human race as the merciful pathway to holiness and heaven rather than sin and hell.
Third, the reason Paul focuses on homosexuality in these verses is that it is the most vivid dramatization in life of the most profound connection between the disordering of heart-worship and the disordering of our sexual lives. I’ll try to say it simply, though it is weighty beyond words.
“God means for the beauty of worship to be dramatized in the right ordering of our sexual lives.”
We learn from Paul in Ephesians 5:31–32 that, from the beginning, manhood and womanhood existed to represent or dramatize God’s relation to his people and then Christ’s relation to his bride, the church. In this drama, the man represents God or Christ and is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. The woman represents God’s people or the church. And sexual union in the covenant of marriage represents pure, undefiled, intense heart-worship. That is, God means for the beauty of worship to be dramatized in the right ordering of our sexual lives.
But instead, we have exchanged the glory of God for images, especially of ourselves. The beauty of heart-worship has been destroyed. Therefore, in judgment, God decrees that this disordering of our relation to him be dramatized in the disordering of our sexual relations with each other. And since the right ordering of our relationship to God in heart-worship was dramatized by heterosexual union in the covenant of marriage, the disordering of our relationship to God is dramatized by the breakdown of that heterosexual union.
Homosexuality is the most vivid form of that breakdown. God and man in covenant worship are represented by male and female in covenant sexual union. Therefore, when man turns from God to images of himself, God hands us over to what we have chosen and dramatizes it by male and female turning to images of themselves for sexual union, namely their own sex. Homosexuality is the judgment of God dramatizing the exchange of the glory of God for images of ourselves. (See the parallel uses of “exchange” in verses 25 and 26.)
Finally, one last word: the healing of the homosexual soul, as with every other soul, will be the return of the glory God to its rightful place in our affections.