About 67%—two out of three—of Christians affiliated with white mainline Protestant churches and with the Catholic church support legal marriage for same-sex couples. Christians affiliated with a black Protestant church are roughly evenly split between those who support it and those who oppose.
Only 35% of all Christians affiliated with white evangelical Protestant churches favor it. But about 50% of younger white evangelicals—those 54 and younger—support it, double the 25% of those older than 54 that do.
Are those that support it ignoring scripture? Are those who oppose it taking an overly narrow view?
This article continues a series of articles considering scripture that arises in the same-sex marriage discussion.
The Clobber Passages
Only about 11-15 verses of the 31,173 in the Bible are argued to mention homosexual behavior.
These verses are referred to as the “clobber passages” —- 7-8 passages in the Bible often quoted by Christians who assert God “clearly” condemns same-sex marriage and homosexuality in all instances.
The clobber passages:
- Genesis 19:4-5 (men of Sodom want to rape angels they think are men)
- Leviticus 18:22 (a rule in the Law of Moses: “a man shall not lie with another man”)
- Leviticus 20:13 (same)
- Romans 1:26-27 (men and women “exchanging” natural sexual relations for “unnatural” ones with those of the same sex, given over to lust)
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (arsenokoitai—sometimes translated as “men who practice homosexuality”—will “not inherit the kingdom of God”)
- 1 Timothy 1:9-11 (the “sinful,” including the arsenokoitais)
- Jude 7 (Sodom giving themselves to fornication and going after strange flesh)
Prior posts in this series addressed the first three (and the seventh one).
Today’s post discusses the fourth one, describing some of what Christians say about what is probably the most-discussed clobber-passage in the New Testament, Romans 1:26-27.
Alternating Voices in this Post
This post continues a series regarding what Christians who affirm same-sex marriage and Christians who oppose same-sex marriage say about relevant scripture. Like the prior posts in the series, this post describes a hypothetical conversation between the two sides after providing context to the main scripture discussed in the post.
That is, below, after the context and main scripture are described, the point of view expressed alternates between an affirming and non-affirming point of view, as in a conversation between the two sides.
Context of the Main Passage Under Discussion:
The New Testament book of Romans includes a letter written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome around 56 C.E. (A.D.). The letter covers a variety of topics. After the opening greetings, Paul launches into a heavy topic, the wrath of God over people’s wickedness.
Paul says some people exchanged the truth for a lie and decided to worship idols made in the image of mortal human beings or animals, rather than God. Because of this, Paul explains, God allowed those people’s lusts to take control (God “gave them up”) and allowed them to degrade their bodies amongst themselves. Further, Paul says, …
The Main Passage (Romans 1:26-27):
“… God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Some Non-Affirming Christians Say: Romans 1:26-27 makes it clear that homosexual activity is sin in all instances.
This is really clear. Romans 1:26-27 clearly says God considers all homosexual sex shameful, unnatural, error, and due a penalty. It is difficult to imagine how to make it plainer that it is a sin.
Homosexual sex is motivated by a person’s immoral nature. It is shameful for humans to engage in it. Only those with no shame, who have exchanged the truth for a lie, can possibly think that homosexual sex is acceptable to God after reading this passage, whether inside a so-called marriage or not.
Some Affirming Christians Say: This passage just gives Paul’s opinion, not God’s word.
Paul is speaking in this passage, not God or Jesus.
Even though Paul sometimes expresses God’s word in his Biblical writings, he sometimes is simply giving his own opinion, which may or may not be accurate.
Paul himself says so: see, for example, 1 Cor. 7:12 (“… I say—I and not the Lord— …”); 1 Cor. 7:25 (“… I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion …”); 2 Cor. 11:17 (“What I am saying … I am saying not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool …”).
When Paul expresses God’s word, he sometimes explicitly says so. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 7:10, where he says, in that intance, “I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, ….”
Romans 1:26-27 does not give any indication that Paul is giving instructions from God. It is written like it is Paul’s opinion on what God did (“God gave them …”).
So, do not get carried away in thinking that Romans 1:26-27 precisely defines God’s view of sin somehow. It is most likely simply Paul’s opinion, just like in 1 Cor 7:25, 7:12, and other places.
Some Non-Affirming Christians: Paul is delivering God’s word here.
Romans 1:26-27 expresses God’s view via the authority of an Apostle of God, the Apostle Paul, and does not just express Paul’s personal opinion.
Also, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….” So, Romans 1:26-27 is inspired by God, God-breathed, and must be followed just like the rest of scripture.
Some Affirming Christians: Some of what is in the Bible is a word to God or a word to other people.
How could 2 Timothy, a book chosen by men to go into the New Testament in the first place, conclusively declare itself and all the rest of the books that men chose to be in the New Testament to be “scripture,” “inspired by God,” and binding forever?
“Scripture” referred to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is the Old Testament (or parts of it). The sentence right in front of it says so. It says, in a letter from Paul to Timothy, “how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures ….” (2 Tim 3:15). The scriptures Timothy would have known from infancy is not the New Testament.
Also, not everything in the Bible is a word “from” God. Most everyone recognizes that much of the book of Psalms is written by people to God, not by God to people, for example. Do not be too quick to make Romans 1:26-27 God’s communication to us.
And even if one assumes 2 Timothy 3:16-17 refers to the New Testament somehow, Romans 1:26-27 can be “useful for teaching” what Paul’s views were, teaching the difference between a word from God and a word from Paul, and teaching other things. Being “useful for teaching” does not mean it is a command from God, much less one for us today.
Some Non-Affirming Christians: Romans 1:26-27 is from God, and it could not be plainer.
The entire Bible is from God and should be followed today. The usefulness of it is to guide our lives.
Romans 1:26-17 plainly teaches that homosexual sex is shameful and unnatural in God’s eyes and thus a sin.
Some Affirming Christians: Regardless, the passage does not refer to homosexual people; it refers to heterosexual people who “exchanged” their “natural” sexual orientation.
Even if you consider Romans 1:26-27 from God, it does not refer to homosexual persons. Notice that the people described gave up and “exchanged” their “natural” sexual relations.
“Natural” sexual relations for a homosexual person is sex with people of the same sex. Homosexual persons would not “give up” or “exchange” their “natural” sexual relations when having sex with a person of the same sex. For them, it is natural. Thus, Romans 1:26-27 does not refer to homosexual people.
So, Romans 1:26-27 most likely refers to heterosexual people giving up (exchanging) their “natural” relations for what was to them “unnatural” sexual relations with a person of the same sex.
Non-Affirming Christians Say: The passage does not refer to sexual orientation; it refers to all homosexual acts as a category as not “natural.”
“Natural” in Romans 1:26-27 refers to all opposite-sex relations and “unnatural” refers to all same-sex relations. When the passage says that “men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another,” this is a description of what is and what is not natural for all humans. Homosexual activity is not natural for any human.
Also, there is no evidence Paul was familiar with the concept of what was “natural” and “unnatural” relative to sexual orientation, so it is highly unlikely that he was using “natural” in that sense.
Some Affirming Christians: Paul uses “natural” elsewhere to refer to the state of a person or thing, not some category.
As The New International Commentary on the New Testament explains, Paul usually uses the word “nature” or “natural” in his letters to “describe the way things are by reason of their intrinsic state or birth, and in those cases there is no clear reference to divine intervention.”
For example, in Romans 11:21, Paul refers to “natural” tree branches. In other words, Paul uses the word “natural” to refer to the way the particular person or thing itself is. Thus, “natural” in Romans 1:26-27 refers to what is natural for each person, and same-sex attraction is natural for homosexual persons.
Some Non-Affirming Christians: Here, Paul is using the word “natural” to indicate that homosexual sex is against God’s natural law, as indicated by humans are made.
While Paul might sometimes use “natural” to refer to a particular item’s characteristics, Paul uses “natural” in Romans 1:26-27 in the sense of natural law—the way God’s creation is made. Obviously, it is not natural for men to have sex with one another, and it is not natural for women to have sex with one another. Their physical construction—the way they are made—displays a natural law against homosexual sex.
Some Affirming Christians: The passage is probably about pagan temple prostitution or pagan temple sex anyway, not about a committed relationship.
There is nothing about Romans 1:26-27 to indicate it refers to natural “law” and the passage plainly refers to what is natural for the particular person by referring to “natural sexual relations” as something “exchanged” or “abandoned” by individuals.
Regardless, Paul is most likely describing and condemning pagan temple prostitution and pagan-temple sex here. He describes people who both “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (v. 23) and “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature” (v. 25) as the ones who “exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural ….” (v. 26.)
In other words, Paul is condemning certain sex acts within a particular type of activity—pagan-god worship activity—in Romans 1:26-27. It is not a condemnation of all homosexual activity, much less within a same-sex marriage.
Some Non-Affirming Christians: The passage describes all homosexual acts as shameful and a lie.
Paul sees the exchange of usual, opposite-sex relations for same-sex relations in Romans 1:26-27 as “the natural outcome of the exchanging of God’s glory for the likewise of an image (1:23) and for exchanging the truth of God for a lie (1:25).”
In other words, one evil and lie that Paul condemns is pagan-god worship, but Paul is noting that the natural outcome of that one evil and lie is a second evil and lie: homosexual acts.
Some Affirming Christians: Homosexuality has nothing to do with it — Paul would have called it “shameful” if it would have been heterosexual sex acts — it was fornication and idolatry that Paul was calling shameful.
What Paul describes as “shameful” is this: “shameful lusts” and “shameful acts.” The passage describes people fulfilling lusts outside a long-term, committed relationship. The passage does not say anything about intercourse within a marriage relationship.
This is important: Would Paul have described the acts described in Romans 1:26-27 as “shameful” if between members of the opposite sex? Of course!
So, it was not the homosexual aspect of the actions that was “shameful,” but sex in relation to other-God worship and sex outside of marriage. It just so happened to be with members of the same sex, but that is not what made it “shameful.”
We should stop using this passage to claim it was the same-sex aspect that is declared “shameful.”
The passage is not a description or condemnation of same-sex marriage or sex within such a marriage.
Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and Christians who affirm same-sex marriage each have more to say about this passage, of course.
What do you think?
Sources & Notes
Statistics: Pew Research Center, “Support for Same-Sex Marriage Grows, Even Among Groups That Had Been Skeptical,” (June 26, 2017).
29% of those in the Churches of Christ support it, while 65% oppose it, and 7% don’t know. See Pew Research.
For non-affirming views generally, with citations, see Charles H. Talber, Romans, in Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary, Macon: Smith & Helwys Publishing, Inc. (2002), pages 55-78; Stanley J. Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (1998).
For affirming views generally, see Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (Convergent Books 2014).
Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press (1993).
Paul “views the exchange of [usual] sexual relations … for ….”: Frank J. Matera, Romans, in Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic (2010), page 52-53.
“The Greek term aphentes, corresponding to “exchanged” (metellaxan) on the female side, likewise suggests a deliberate choice.” Brendan Byrne, Romans in Sacra Pagina, Vol. 6, Daniel J. Harrington, ed., Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press (1996), page 77.
“… no evidence Paul was familiar with … “natural” and “unnatural” relative to sexual orientation …”: Thomas J. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (1998), at 95-96 (analytical commentary from a conservative perspective).
“… Paul usually uses the word “nature” or “natural” to “describe the way things are …”: Douglas J. Moo, The Epsitle to the Romans in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1996), page 114.
“Paul uses “natural” here to refer to “natural” law …”: Moo, supra, page 115.
Scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise stated.