Given the current controversy surrounding Israel Folau’s social media post, a piece I wrote for the ABC News website a couple of years ago has again become highly topical. I’m reposting it here (for clarity, I’ve removed material that was mainly relevant to the debate from two years ago).
There is a big idea that Christians down through the ages have recognised as making sense of the Bible, both its overall message, and its details. That big idea is, in a nutshell, the message about Jesus Christ. This message – often called the “gospel” – is about Jesus’s past, present and future; and it’s about the implications of Jesus for our own lives.
Seeing the “gospel” as the big idea is very helpful when we read Paul’s statements about homosexuality, especially when it comes to his letter to the Romans. That’s because Paul explicitly announces to his readers that his letter is all about “the gospel” (Romans 1:1, 16). Paul’s statements about homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27) are meant to be read in light of that much bigger idea: the gospel about Jesus Christ. When we do this, a picture emerges that makes sense, not only of these verses, but also of the other biblical texts concerning marriage and sexuality. We don’t need to resort to reinterpreting or marginalising these texts. Rather, we can read them in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So what does Paul say about the gospel of Jesus Christ in Romans, and how do these verses about homosexuality (Romans 1:26-27) fit in to it?
Romans 1:26-27 appears in the opening section of Paul’s argument (Romans 1:18-32). In this section, Paul is claiming that God’s “wrath” is being revealed against all kinds of human “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” Paul lists many wrong acts and attitudes, including greed, slander, arrogance and lack of mercy. These kinds of sins were sometimes seen by Jewish writers as typical of “others” – which is to say, non-Jews. Paul, however, doesn’t allow his readers to entertain any such “us and them” attitude for long. In the following chapters, Paul attacks judgmental attitudes, and argues that every human being is guilty before God and in need of forgiveness (Romans 3:19-20). This forgiveness comes, not through doing good works, but through Jesus’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Those who trust Jesus are completely forgiven, ushering in a whole new way to live in “righteousness” and a great hope of eternal life for the future when our bodies are raised from the dead.
So the verses about homosexuality, within the opening section of Romans about “unrighteousness,” all fit into this bigger picture of “the gospel”. This helps us to make sense of the verses in their context.
The fracturing of God’s created order
There is a certain logical order to the way Paul describes human unrighteousness in the opening section of Romans (1:18-32). First, humans suppress the truth about God. Second, humans “exchange” the worship of God for the worship of creation – this is the essence of idolatry. Third, this “exchange” of creator and creation is manifested in an “exchange” of the natural created order for what is against the natural created order – this is where homosexuality is mentioned. Fourth, all kinds of wrong acts and attitudes are described, in a list that seems to get worse and worse – including such things as greed, murder, arrogance and lack of mercy. This list climaxes in a final “exchange” of good for bad, where humans not only do such things, they also approve of them. In all this, God is described as “giving people up” to their own foolishness.
Homosexual actions, then, are not singled out as worthy of greater condemnation than other acts or attitudes. However, they are not condoned either. Rather, they are described in a particular way: as a kind of reversal of God’s created order. They involve the exchange of what is “according to nature” for what is “against nature.”
This is where the words of Jesus about marriage in Matthew 19:1-12 are very helpful. There, in answering a specific question about divorce, Jesus points back to the more basic original intention of God in creation. According to Jesus (quoting Genesis 1-2), God has made a world in which marriage is designed for a lifelong union of “male and female.” This is consistent with Paul’s view in Romans (as well as in 1 Corinthians [which formed the basis of Israel Folau’s post] and 1 Timothy): Paul is saying that sexual unions involving “male and male” and “female and female” are a fracturing of God’s created intention. Thus, they are against “nature” – which for Paul means the natural order intended by God in his creation.
There was an awareness of homosexual orientation in the ancient world (see for instance Plato’s Symposium, 189-93; or Philo’s Contemplative Life, 50-63). Paul, like other Jews such as Philo, would most likely have been aware of such claims; yet like other Jews he would still have regarded such a concept as covered by the categories he describes here – namely, as against God’s created order (that is “against nature”). This is because Paul does not believe that the orientation of a person’s desire is a reliable guide for what is good or “natural.” In fact, especially when it comes to things such as greed and worship of the creation, he regards certain desires and orientations as fundamentally wrong.
This means that our current experiences of desires aren’t necessarily a reflection of what is good according to God’s design; according to the Bible, our desires may in fact reflect the fractured world we now live in, a world that is under God’s “wrath” (Romans 1:18).
The restoration of order
So these verses in Paul’s letter to the Romans cannot easily be read in terms of an endorsement of same-sex relationships, even of those relationships which are consensual expressions of individuals’ deeply-felt sexual orientations. Rather, such relationships are described by Paul as one expression of a world under God’s condemnation.
Of course, it’s vital to remember what Paul goes on to say next: everyone, no matter their moral stance, is under the same sentence of condemnation from God (which rules out any “holier-than-thou” approach to others); and everyone needs the forgiveness and the right standing before God that comes, not through doing good works, but through trusting in Jesus’s death on the cross. Still, those who trust in Jesus have a new life to live. The shape of that life involves giving ourselves – including our bodies – over to “righteousness” and not “unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13).
That means the opening section of Romans about “unrighteousness” – including the verses about homosexuality – continue to speak directly to Christians’ lives today. We are to live lives of “righteousness.” And this will not be easy. Paul goes on to talk about the struggle all Christians face as they seek to live righteous lives and work against wrong desires, while they wait for a new, far better creation.
In the meantime, we are called to love one another, and our neighbours – which ultimately means seeking what is best for others despite the cost to ourselves (a reflection of God’s love for us; Romans 5:8).