Is Romans 1:26-27 Talking About Homosexuality? A Response to Matthew Vines

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; 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 and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” (Romans 1:26-27)

The above words of the Apostle Paul are one of the Bible’s key insights on how God views homosexuality and gay marriage. In fact, this passage gives the most detail and is the longest of all the passages condemning this practice. Paul’s words could not be more clear: naturally sex is between a man and a woman, and homosexuality opposes that. Further, homosexual practices in every shape and size are degrading and indecent.

However, in our culture today, many so-called Christians are openly practicing homosexuality or are in same-sex relationships without any regret. Many are outright saying the Bible is outdated, and modern research attempts to prove Paul’s (God’s) view of homosexuality wrong. Matthew Vines is a man who takes it a step further. He does not reject inspiration or biblical authority, but rather, seeks to show that we have been misreading the Bible on this issue the whole time. Among other things, he is famous for his recent book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (New York: Convergent, 2014) where he hashes out his position.

In this post I will examine and critique his chapter in that book on the above passage. Let us see how Vines’ interpretation of this text varies from the traditional view, and whether or not it holds any water.

Is only excessive homosexuality a sin?

First, he draws attention to Paul’s description of their acts as “passions” and “burning”. He argues that Paul expressly describes the sinful activity as lustful, but says nothing to condemn a loving monogamous relationship (p. 99). Throughout the chapter he quotes many ancient texts on homosexual practices of that day, showing that what was in mind was more excessive and barbaric activity, but never was a monogamous homosexual relationship condemned. He concludes from the evidence that Paul wasn’t condemning a homosexual orientation verses a heterosexual one, but condemning homosexuality in excess rather than in moderation (p. 105. See also his quote from Brownson on p. 113).

However, Paul is not merely condemning the way we go about a certain action, but he is outright condemning the practice itself. Further, it begs the questions, why we shouldn’t extend his excuse to heterosexual premarital sex? My wife and I recently talked with a girl who tried to justify her acts by saying there’s a difference between sex and “love-making”. Surely that will not sway God on Judgment Day. Or why not sympathize with Shechem? Sure he defiled Dinah, but the Bible says that “he loved the girl” (Gen. 34:3) and that he intended to marry her (Gen. 34:4). Nobody, however, would say that he was justified in his actions. Thus, although a homosexual couple may be committed to one another, yet still their love cannot make their disobedience to God’s clear commands acceptable.

Does “nature” just mean culture?

He spends some time on the issue of what Paul meant by “natural” and “unnatural”. One excuse is that the way that culture viewed “natural” sex was male in the dominant role and female in the passive. To them, homosexuality would be “unnatural” because with two males, one would have to take the passive role, and vice versa, which they would say goes against the norm. To be fair, he is right to expose the sexist bend in much of the ancient writings. There are, however, some shortcomings in his thought process.

First, he even admits that the non-procreative aspect of homosexuality was in at least Philo’s and Josephus’ thought (p. 108). Thus, the “unnatural”-ness of homosexuality stands whether lustful or moderate. Neither a wedding vow, or even a sex change, will enable a homosexual couple to procreate. This definition of “nature”, then, is truly rooted in nature rather than culture.

The second issue is that he admits that gender roles are in the mix also. Although the anceints’ values of what makes manhood and womanhood differ strongly from Paul’s, still it proves that when Paul says “unnatural” it means going against the Bible’s defined roles in sex. This again is rooted in nature, for God designed sex with two roles, one of which only a man can fill, and the other which only a woman can fill. Although we may not equate it with dominance and passivity, surely Vines fails to show that Paul did not have God’s given roles in mind. In fact, he does the opposite, thus destroying his case.

We can be grateful that the author does not brush off Paul as a sexist (p. 110), as many are quick to do. He correctly points out that Paul, like Jesus, revolutionized the role of woman, raising their position higher than perhaps any culture ever has (whilst preserving a complementarian model, of course). Yet despite this, Vines still maintains that Paul, although not sexist, had Philo and the others’ views in mind when he used the words “natural” and “unnatural”. He says that by the time Romans was written the terms had a well-established meaning (p. 110). However, it is always bad exegesis to assume that the biblical authors hold the same traditions. Simply put, the apostles were godly men, not conforming to this world, but were having their minds transformed (Rom. 12:1-2). Therefore, if the way their culture viewed men and women was unbiblical, Paul wouldn’t have meant that.

“Natural” in the Bible never refers to culture

He continues his lecture on “natural” with a word study on the Greek word both within and without the Bible. He gives particular focus to the shame-honor aspect of the ancient culture in which Paul lived. He cross references 1 Corinthians 11’s condemnation of long hair/covered heads on men, as well as short hair/uncovered heads on women. There Paul says that long hair on a woman is “natural” and that short hair is “shameful”. Vines then argues that not many Christians would agree that this is truly based upon nature. Rather, they would say that Paul’s culture was what “proved” that women should have long hair. From that he argues that we should view Paul’s “natural” in Romans 1 the same way.

Perhaps it is good that I am writing this review, because I am a one-in-a-million Christian who believes that Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11 is still for today. This is not the place for a full-blown explanation of that passage. However, I would urge one to examine that passage for one—even one—cultural criterion as the basis of Paul’s ethics. Rather, one will find seven reasons why Paul believed what he did, all of which are based on timeless grounds. Therefore, Vines’ appeal to 1 Corinthians 11’s “natural” does not stand.

What is more important to note, however, is that 1 Corinthians 11 is the only New Testament example he gives! He does not lay out unshakable evidence that Paul uniformly, or even regularly, uses the same Greek term to reference culture—he only lists one! In fact, the specific word, phusikos, is used one time in the New Testament other than Romans 1. In that place it is used to refer to an animal’s natural instincts (2 Pet. 2:12)! Consider also the Gk. word phusis, which is in the same word family and is that which Paul uses for “unnatural” here. All of the other uses of phusis in Romans indisputably refer to physical nature. In each, it refers to one’s heritage as a Jew or Gentile, or to physical circumcision (Rom. 2:14, 27; 11:21, 24). The same goes for its every other use in the New Testament (1 Cor. 11:14; Gal. 2:15; 4:8; Eph. 2:3; Jas. 3:7; 2 Pet. 1:4). In each case the context points to nature and not culture. Clearly Vines was embarrassingly selective in his word study.

Yet he still maintains that this word refers to “cultural conventions” and “ancient customs” (p. 111). He references what is perhaps the most detailed and authoritative Bible dictionary available, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament1. He says that the dictionary equates normal and abnormal with natural and unnatural (p. 111). Thankfully I own a copy of that volume. Upon slowly reading (two times!) the entire chapter he references, I can safely conclude that Vines summary of the matter is completely incorrect and again, embarrassingly selective.

First, his citation (of volume IX, p. 262) in particular is ambiguous and in fact does not equate “normal” with, say, the norm of our day. In fact, in the paragraph just before there is a quote where custom and nature are paired together but use separate Greek words.

Secondly, the dictionary’s entire 27-page chapter on this word family, containing dozens and dozens of citations of ancient writings, does not contain a single reference where the context explicitly points to culture. Rather, the definitions are always rooted in nature, such as divine nature, animal instincts, natural talents, etc.

Third, quite contrary to Vines’ view, there are a few references in the TDNT chapter where the word means nature as opposed to culture. For example: “…this nature is given and is not dependent on conscious direction or education” (IX:253); “…this cannot be attributed to divine or social or other human causes” (IX:254); “In 4 Macc. universal nature which overrules all life…is contrasted with law and also…with reason” (IX:266-7). There is discussion about “[t]he antithesis of nature and law” in Greek thought (IX:260-1). There, nomos is the Greek word used for “order” and “its institutions”. “…[W]e have a plain stand for nature as [opposed] to law, custom, and convention” (IX:261).

Why didn’t older commentators condemn gay marriage?

His comment at the end of the chapter that none of the older commentators took Paul to mean monogamous homosexuality, although correct, does not stand. He states that up through the 19th century commentators identified the sin in Romans 1:26-27 as lustful, excessive passions, etc. instead of homosexuality as an orientation (p. 115). However, it must be asked why they did not mention gay marriage. Is it not clear that they were not as inclined to include it because the practice was not prevalent in their day? Is it not clear that the practice’s absence from their commentary is due to its absence from their culture? They did not think to include, “Oh, and it doesn’t make it right just because you marry the person,” because gay marriage was almost unheard of before our time. I would turn the statement around and ask what ancient commentator explicitly wrote that Paul appraised gay marriage in Romans 1.

So what exactly is the sin in Romans 1?

So what is Paul really declaring to be a sin, and what does he really mean by calling it unnatural and shameful?

The biggest clue to what men ought not do with men here is that it is something that would not be unnatural or shameful had they done it with a woman. Paul talks about something that is natural for a man and a woman to do that becomes unnatural when it is done between two members of the same sex. With that in mind, if we take all of the proposed solutions and apply it to the text, they all fail.

For example, many say that the sin Paul had in mind was pedophilia. Yet, should we really say Paul believed that an adult male and a female child is natural? (Also, consider that it says “men with men” without distinguishing between age). Or consider the accusation that Paul meant male temple prostitutes. We can turn it around and ask whether or not Paul was tolerant of a man with a female temple prostitute. Both of these cases are ridiculous.

The same can be done with Leviticus 18:22. There God says, “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female” (emphasis mine). Pedophilia and lustful passion would be wrong whether you do it with a male or a female. However, that is not what God had in mind. He is saying that there are acts which are totally fine to do to a woman, yet you are forbidden to do so with another male.

Also, application of this in fact can extend not only to lustful homosexuality, but to monogamous homosexuality as well. For by nature one man will marry and be committed to one woman for life. Yet, if one exchanges this natural and good design of God for one of the same gender, it falls under what Paul labels degrading and unnatural. When God says, “as with a woman,” we should assume He means, “as with your wife.” Thus, to exchange your wife for a husband clearly falls under the umbrella of this prohibition.

God gave mankind the wonderful gifts of marriage and sex. When considering the morality of homosexuality or any issue about marriage, we must look back to the original marriage for our answers, as Jesus did in Matthew 19. To Him, anything that does not line up with God’s perfect design for this beautiful gift (in that case, divorce) is a perversion and an abomination. Clearly Paul saw homosexual activity of any sort as opposing God’s design and moral standards.

If you have participated in these sinful acts, I am not seeking to condemn you (you are not extra bad), but to help you. There is still hope for forgiveness through the blood of Christ. Your homosexual practices don’t offend God any more than my heterosexual practices before my conversion.

Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians, some of whom were homosexuals as well as fornicators: “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” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Your relationship with God—which has been severed by any and all of your sins, sexual in nature or not—can be restored if you repent and put your trust in Christ and His death and resurrection now. He promises forgiveness and freedom to all who come to Him.

-Steve Rohn

1Eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977).

What do you think?