Many Christians say that Paul condemned homosexual behavior. It is clearest in Romans 1. Paul may have been wrong, but he obviously said that people who engage in same-sex activities are in line for judgment and condemnation. In fact, the whole Gentile lifestyle is wrong and must be given up. That’s how most Christians understand Paul’s position.
To be specific, Paul wrote, “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” (Rom. 1:26-27, NRSV). And finally, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (Rom 1:32, NRSV).
Paul goes on to say that the order of nature will bring about the downfall of those who oppose it. This natural order can be discerned by everybody, so nobody has an excuse for rebelling against it.
But there has long been a problem with this interpretation of Paul’s intended meaning in the opening stanzas of his letter to the Jewish Christians in Rome. There is something about its harsh judgmental tone that runs against the grain of the rest of the Book of Romans as we have it. Since no scholars could quite put their finger on what was wrong with this way of understanding Paul, and since the Church had a long history of reading Romans that way, the interpretation became rock solid in the church, and useful stones for hurling at those who are “exchanging natural intercourse … who were consumed with passion for one another.” Paul then seems to say, and modern preachers repeat this very thought, “Those who practice such things deserve to die….” This line of thinking was very prevalent in Jewish thinking, particularly among Jews living in overwhelmingly Gentile circumstances, as the Roman Jews were. Even though this condemnatory attitude is in marked contrast with all the rest of Romans, what else can we do but just accept it as it reads?
Calvin Porter of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis reconsidered this issue and came to another conclusion. Porter discovered that Romans conforms to a particular form of debate that Romans used. The key for Porter was the insistent use of the word “they” in Romans 1. “They” say these things. “They quote the law.” “They condemn and reject.” Furthermore, the people who do such things were Jewish legalists. But suddenly in Romans 2, Paul switches to “you”. Do you want to be treated that way, subject to those judgments? “You” know such condemnation is wrong. You know that Christ wiped out that condemnatory use of the law. You know God’s love and grace.
In other words, Paul is using a literary legal form of argument in which he summarizes a popular point of view and then rejects it. “You” Romans reading my letter, Paul seems to say, need not be that type of judgmental, condemning, self-righteous follower of Christ. You will know better. Paul’s whole argument in Romans is to be non-judgmental because that use of the law is destructive and has been over-ruled by what Christ did for us.
Paul did not condemn gays and lesbians, because Christ does not condemn.
Romans 1 is not available to lambaste us. Christians who use these legalistic, judgmental arguments do not understand the Gospel that Paul was advocating from Jesus Christ. Their condemnation, moreover, will rebound upon them.
Porter is more nuanced, naturally, than this brief extraction from his writing. You can read a helpful article about Porter’s writing here:
I also wrote a more complete review of all this which is now available here:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.