My Interpretative History of Romans 1

Robert Grider[1]

For Nazarenes, the most important source of theological insight and guidance is scripture. This essay examines the issue of homoeroticism in light of scripture, particularly Paul’s words in Romans 1.

While a student at a Nazarene college in the 1980s, I had a friend named Terry. Terry was a few years older than me. He was divorced. Before becoming a Christian, he had been a heroin addict. While in a drug-addled state, he and a young women had married. They divorced six weeks later. When I met Terry about 10 years later, he was a dynamic Christian and he wanted to remarry.

Terry asked me what I thought. We looked at the scripture and read where men are clearly prohibited from remarrying after divorce (with one exception): “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 16:9). There had been no infidelity in Terry’s brief six-week marriage. Would he be committing adultery if he remarried?

What was I to say? I was married and enjoyed all that comes with a healthy marriage, not just sexual relations but the intimacy and joys of building a life together. Was scripture to be applied in a way that imposed a lifelong sentence of forced singleness and celibacy on Terry? Was Terry never to be blessed by a loving and nurturing marital relationship?

 I told Terry that I believed in the sanctity of marriage, and that I still believed that the prophet Malachi was speaking for God when he said, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16, NASB). However, I also believed both that Terry hated divorce and that God was a God of infinite love. I told Terry that I believed he could remarry without engaging in sin. Terry got remarried.

Several years later, I was teaching New Testament at a Nazarene college. One of my students named Brent had a brother who was gay. Brent asked me what I thought about his brother being in a relationship with a man. Brent and I went to the scripture.

I told Brent that the Old Testament passages were easily reviewed. There are three real pieces of evidence. First, there are the passages in Leviticus which clearly prohibit homoeroticism, even calling for the death penalty for homosexual activity between men (Lev. 20:13; 18:22). Second, there is the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a story in which the men of the town wanted to rape the angels who were visiting Lot’s family. The story ends with God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for the depth of their sin (Gen. 19:1-29). Although each of these passages is often used to condemn same-sex marriage, neither can really be applied to the modern situation of two men having a sexual relationship within the confines of marriage.

Rape is wrong regardless of the sexual orientation of the attacker, so the Genesis story about the intended rape of Lot’s guests in Sodom is irrelevant to the current conversation about gay marriage. Likewise, the passage from Leviticus falls squarely within the legislation related to ritual purity under the Old Testament Law. The church should be no more concerned with this prohibition about homosexual relations than it should be concerned with how men clean themselves up after an involuntary nocturnal emission (Lev. 15: 1-15), or whether or not a married heterosexual couple has sex during a woman’s period (Lev. 18:19), or even if a person eats pork (Lev. 11:7) or wears blended fabrics (Deut. 22:11).

The third passage is set later in Israel’s history than the prohibition in Leviticus, but it was actually written significantly earlier than the prohibition in Leviticus. In 2 Samuel, David offered a eulogy for his best friend, Jonathan, and described Jonathan as a “gazelle” (2 Sam. 1:19), a term often used with sexual undertones in the Song of Solomon (2:7, 9, 17; 3:5; 4:5; 7:3; 8:14). Then David spoke to the recently deceased Jonathan and lamented: “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Sam. 1:26).

I explained to Brent that the Davidic allusion to a sexual relationship with Jonathan probably indicates that the ancient Israelites had a rather permissive attitude toward same-sexual relationships in the sixth century BC (when David’s eulogy was added to Israel’s scriptures) than it did a hundred years later in the fifth century BC (when the Levitical prohibitions were added to Israel’s scripture).

Moving to the New Testament, there are again three relevant passages. The first two passages (1 Tim. 1:10; 1 Cor. 6:9-10) includes words that are sometimes translated as “homosexuality” (1 Tim.) or “homosexuals” (1 Cor.). However, such translations are clearly incorrect. The ancient Greek and Jewish worlds had no conception of sexual orientation (gay, straight or otherwise). The cultures from which the New Testament arose did not think of people as heterosexual or homosexual. No such categories existed. Instead, they thought of people being sexual and of people engaging in sexual activity with various appropriate and inappropriate partners. Ancient writers were clearly aware of people who had sex with partners of the same sex, but they never thought of such people as “homosexual.” In fact, there was no word for homosexuality or homosexuals.

Even though there was no Greek (or Hebrew) word for homosexuality, there were a lot of words for homosexual behaviors. Both 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians use one of these words, apsenokoitas, a rare word formed by joining the Greek words for “man” and “bed.” Although the connotations are clearly sexual, the precise activity and relationships are unclear. 1 Timothy also uses another related word, malakos, a word which literally means “soft.” It was typically used for a man who submitted himself to anal penetration by another man.

Since same-sex marriage did not exist in antiquity, neither of these passages can be easily applied to a contemporary sex marital relationship. All same-sex activity in antiquity took place outside the bonds of marriage. These passages are difficult to apply to same-sex activity within the confines of marriage. Associating the vices listed in 1 Tim. 1:10 and 1 Cor. 6:9-10 to a married same-sex couple would make about as much sense as applying the Bible’s prohibitions against heterosexual activity outside of marriage to the sexual activity of a heterosexual couple in the confines of marriage. The sexual vices described in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy were viewed as vices in antiquity because they took place outside of marriage (like heterosexual pre-marital sex and adultery).

This brings us to the most important passage for understanding and applying biblical teachings about same-sex unions to the contemporary world: Romans 1. In the context of Paul’s discussion about the universality of sin, the Apostle said that sin had become so rampant among humans that God “gave up” people to their sin. As one example of how God gave people up, Paul said, “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” (Rom. 1:26-27).

I pointed out to Brent that Romans does not actually say that same-sex relations are sinful. Romans 1 only says that the same-sex relations occur “unnaturally” as a result of sin. As Brent and I then understood Romans 1 in light of our close reading of the text, we concluded that Paul understood same-sex desire to be a result of sin. We concluded that same-sex attractions were the result of sin and not acts of sin per se. Homosexuality, as we understood it at the time, was a result of sin just like the subordination of women, pain in child birth and the necessity of earning one’s living through hard work (Gen. 3:14-15). It was not sinful in itself, but it would not exist in a perfect world. We wondered if Brent’s brother was in some sense a victim of a sinful world.

I told Brent that he should probably see his brother’s homosexuality as a result of living in a fallen, sinful world and that Brent should probably encourage his brother to do two things. First, find a monogamous partner to share his life with, and second, find a church—not the Church of the Nazarene—that would bless his same-sex union (this advice was given long before the legalization of same-sex marriages).

About 15 years later, Todd approached me in tears. He had just broken off his engagement to a beautiful young lady. He had told her that he could not marry her because he was gay. I commended him for his compassion and courage—his compassion for not subjecting his fiancée to a marriage that would not be healthy for either of them and his courage for telling her the truth about why he was breaking the engagement. Then, Todd and I turned to scripture.

My understanding of the Old Testament passages and the words in the New Testament’s vice lists had not changed. Those biblical texts had no legitimate application to the contemporary issue of a homosexual couple living in a marriage relationship (same-sex marriage had been legalized in the intervening years).

However, my understanding of Romans 1 had changed. I asked Todd, “Would it be ‘natural’ for you to have sex with a woman?” He laughed and said, “no.” Then I asked, “Would it be ‘natural’ for you to have sex with a man?” He smiled and said, “yes.”

I no longer understood homosexual love to be a result of sin. In the intervening years, I had studied the ancient meanings of the Greek words which are normally translated as “natural” and “unnatural” in Romans (physikos and aphysikos). The terms are not primarily biological; they are sociological. They convey a sense like “based on the way the [fallen] world works.” Paul was essentially saying, “don’t the generally accepted structures of society teach you…” Indeed, in Paul’s world—and in most social constructions until very recently, “the nature of things” did teach that men marry women and women marry men. However, the world is fallen and sinful.

Just because a social structure—like male dominance, the enslavement of one’s fellow humans or the oppression of healthy same-sex love—exists does not mean that it should continue to exist. This, by the way, is why the Church of the Nazarene has wisely ordained women throughout its entire history in spite of clear scriptural teaching condemning the practice (1 Tim. 2:12). Some of presumed social structures of antiquity—like the subordination of women, the enslavement of human beings, and suppression of homosexual love—were oppressive and should be cast aside.

In the time between my conversations with Brent and Todd, my mind had changed. By the time that I talked to Todd, I had come to understand the suppression of healthy homosexual love—and not the homosexual love itself—to be a result of sin. Just as male dominance and slavery became “naturalized” by those in power in a sinful world, heterosexuals (by far the domain cultural group) had “naturalized” heterosexual normativity.

I told Todd that I was okay with him and that I would happily bless his eventual gay marriage. Todd did not need to be “fixed;” he was not “broken.” The world needed “fixed;” the world was “broken.”

“Robert Grider” holds a BA (in Biblical Literature), MA (in Religion) and MDiv (an honors degree in the history of Christianity) from Nazarene institutions. Rob also has a PhD in New Testament. He is the only New Testament professor who was elected into membership of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (the most selective scholarly society for scholars of the New Testament) while teaching at a Nazarene institution. Rob is now a “Nazbeen,” a former Nazarene. Rob left the Church of the Nazarene because, as he tells it, he felt like he was participating in the institutionalized victimization of gays and lesbians by remaining within the Church of the Nazarene.

[1]. I have chosen to withhold my name from this publication, not because I am ashamed of my convictions, but because of my concern for colleagues. I work with a large number of Nazarenes in many different arenas (speaking, publishing, etc.). I fear that the release of my name in this context may confront those treasured friends with the painful choice of either denouncing me and our decades of friendship or jeopardizing their career and ministry. I write in the name of two of my theological mentors, J. Kenneth Grider and Robert Staples, both of whom came to espouse positions like the one which I espouse in this essay. Ken made this opinions public. Rob revealed his opinions to me in private conversations. Both were persons of tremendous faith, deep conviction and unbounded love.

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