You are on page 1of 30

BIOLA UNIVERSITY

DOES PAUL CONDEMN HOMOSEXUALITY? EXAMINING ALTERNATIVE


INTERPRETATIONS OF ROMANS 1:26-27

SUBMITTED TO PROFESSOR JOE GORRA


IN PARTIAL FULFULLMENT OF
BBST 301 BIBLICAL STUDIES RESEARCH SEMINAR

BY
MATTHEW ALAN WILCOXEN
MAY 2007
Wilcoxen, M.A. 2

INTRODUCTION

In January of 2006, a notable leader of the “Emergent Church,” Pastor Brian

McLaren, weighed in on “the Homosexual Question.” Writing in Leadership Journal’s

online blog, he opined:

Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about

homosexuality….If we think that there may actually be a legitimate

context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical

arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications

are staggeringly complex….Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on

making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful

Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably. When

decisions need to be made, they'll be admittedly provisional. We'll keep

our ears attuned to scholars in biblical studies, theology, ethics,

psychology, genetics, sociology, and related fields.1

McLaren, with characteristic charitableness, has highlighted the conundrum

faced by many young Christians as we move forward into a post-Christian culture.

That is, whence ethical authority? Christians, faced with a culture that tolerates (and

sometimes lauds) homosexual behavior, are forced to question the received tradition

condemning all homosexual behavior. It seems that many, torn between the two

authorities (Christianity and culture), are tempted towards McLaren’s agnosticism.

However, is the biblical witness as muddled on the point as McLaren’s comment

indicates? It is my purpose in this essay to look at the one New Testament text

1
“Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral Response” (2006),
http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2006/01/brian_mclaren_o.html (Accessed May 2, 2007).
Wilcoxen, M.A. 3

which more than others,2 speaks to the issue of the ethicality of homosexuality. That

text is Romans 1:26-27. First, I will provide a short exegetical exposition of these

verses in their literary and rhetorical context in the book of Romans with the

conclusion that the passage does indeed provide a clear, unequivocal condemnation

of homosexuality. Next I will consider two exegetical moves that are representative

of all current attempts to soften or explain-away this condemnation on historical

grounds. I will attempt to refute these arguments. Finally, my conclusion will draw

out some pastoral and theological implications from Romans 1:26-27 as it relates to

the issue of homosexuality.

EXEGETICAL ANALYSIS

Context in Romans

Romans 1:26-27 cannot be interpreted seriatim. We must locate these verses

within the literary context of Paul’s epistle to the Romans and his argument therein.

Paul’s purpose3 in writing the book of Romans is to bring about “the obedience of

faith” in the Roman church.4 It is likely that this somewhat vague purpose includes

quelling an ongoing dispute between the Gentile majority in the Roman church and

the Jewish minority over various scruples.5 Others have seen Paul as perhaps trying

to bring an independent church under some type of apostolic direction.6 Virtually all

scholars agree that Paul also expected to visit this church and also expected them to

2
1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:8-10.
3
Lest any misunderstand me, I here distinguish between Paul’s main themes and his main purpose. His
purpose is what he hopes to accomplish with his letter, his themes are subordinate to the accomplishing of
this purpose.
4
Cf. Romans 1:5-6; 15:15-16; 16:25-27.
5
Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT:Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 19.
6
Ibid. Moo attributes this view to G. Klein but, in what is probably an oversight, provides no bibliographic
information for it.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 4

contribute financially to his continuing missionary endeavors.7 As noted above,

whatever these tangentially related purposes were, in Paul’s own words, his goal was

“to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of God, so that

the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom

15:16). The “indicative” portion of the epistle (1:18-11:36) must be seen in relation

to this purpose, which is more directly fleshed-out in the “imperative” portion of the

epistle (12:1-15:13). A broad outline of Romans appears as follows:

I. Introduction: the obedience of faith (1:1-17)

II. Justification by Faith: Argued for and Illustrated (1:18-4:25)

III. Salvation: Now and Later (5:1-8:39)

IV. Excursus: What about the promises to Israel? (9:1-11:36)

V. True Worship: Our Response (12:1-15:13)

VI. Closing: the obedience of faith (15:14-16:27)

As the outline shows, the first major section (excepting the introduction) is

concerned with establishing the doctrine and reality of what has traditionally been

dubbed “justification by faith.”8 We may further subdivide this section as follows:

I. God’s Wrath Revealed Against the Gentiles (1:18-32)

II. God’s Wrath Revealed Against the Jews (2:1-3:9)

III. God’s Wrath Revealed Universally, Without Exception (3:10-20)

IV. God’s Righteousness is Revealed by Faith, not Works of the Law

(3:21-4:25)

7
Ibid., p. 17; Rom 15:22-29.
8
Ibid., 33; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: the English text with introduction, exposition and
notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 34-35; C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary
on the Epistle to the Romans (2 vols.: ICC 45 vol.1-vol.2: Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 103-104.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 5

So then, Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality comes in the middle of a

pericope that is designed to confine all Gentiles under sin. The next step in his

argument is to confine the Jews under sin, regardless of their possession of the law or

circumcision. Following this, Paul stacks up a catena of quotations from the Old

Testament to hammer home the point that all people are universally condemned

under sin, and rightly so.9 His argument, having reached its crescendo in putting all

people in a seemingly irresolvable conflict with the Almighty God, now moves to

bring about resolution. He says in 3:21a, “But now the righteousness of God has

been manifested apart from the law”.10 His argument is that the righteousness of

God11 is bestowed upon believers not through keeping law but through faith in Jesus

Christ who was put forth as a “propitiation” for sins (3:21-31). Paul then establishes

the primacy of justification by faith by showing that Abraham, long before the law

was given on Sinai, and before he was circumcised, was justified by faith and not

works (4:1-25).12

Having located our passage (1:18-32) within the broader context of Romans, and

specifically within the first major section containing Paul’s argument for justification

by faith, it remains for us to examine 1:26-27 within the whole of the section

condemning the Gentiles for their sins. Because my focus is so narrow for the topic

of this paper, I will not provide exegetical comment on every issue in every verse

9
Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989),
50.
10
Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), copyright 2001 by
Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
11
As this sentence should make clear, I interpret “the righteousness of God” as referring to a forensic status
that is indicative of the Christian believer’s relationship to God. Space does not permit me to entertain or
refute so-called “New Perspectives on Paul.” For a good summary of this topic cf. Moo, Romans, 211-217.
12
Cf. Gal 3:17 for another place in which Paul makes the same point. That is, he establishes the antiquity
of justification by faith.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 6

within the section; neither in the body of this essay, nor in the footnotes. Rather, my

goal will be to follow Paul’s argument and to highlight the salient points and

comment on their contribution to our understanding of 1:26-27.

Comment on Romans 1:18-32

As noted above, this passage is concerned with the revealing of God’s wrath

against the Gentiles, and it serves the rhetorical purpose of being part and parcel of

an argument that confines all people under sin and condemnation in order that it may

be clear that God’s righteousness is revealed by faith. The first section of Paul’s

polemic against the Gentiles (1:18-23) is concerned with showing what it is that the

Gentiles have done to deserve God’s wrath. The following sections (1:24-25; 26-27;

28-32) provide elaborations on the ways in which God’s wrath is being revealed.

1:18-23: Paul says that the wrath of God is revealed against all the

ungodliness of people, “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18). The

plain sense of the text is that the wrath of God is presently being revealed from

heaven, and indeed this is confirmed by the Greek13 and some notable

commentators.14 The reason that these Gentiles, who have not special revelation,

may be seen as suppressing the truth is that the knowledge of God has been made

“plain to them” by God (1:19). How has God made the knowledge of himself “plain

to them”?15 Calvin saw this as a reference to the human conscience. That is, that

13
Ajpokaluvptetai ga;r ojrgh; qeou;: although the present tense verb does not necessarily indicate
anything about the time of the action, in light of the rest of the passage it seems correct to see the revealing
of God’s wrath as something that is happening presently. This in no way, however, precludes the final,
apocalyptic revealing of God’s wrath that is present elsewhere in Paul.
14
James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC: Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003) 54; Joseph A. Fitzmyer,
Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB: New York: Doubleday, 1993) 277-
278; Moo, 99-100.
15
. gnwsto.n tou/ qeou/ fanero,n evstin evn auvtoi/j
Wilcoxen, M.A. 7

God has made knowledge of himself readily available in the human person.16 Most

others have seen this phrase as referring to God’s works of creation and providence.17

It seems like both could easily be in view here. God provides knowledge of himself

in the Imago Dei, and within his other works of creation. The following verse (1:20)

confirms the latter, claiming that God’s “eternal power and divine nature, have been

clearly perceived…in the things that have been made.” The result is that people are

simply “without excuse.” But, some may ask, without excuse for what? They are

without excuse for “suppressing the truth” (1:19), a crime which Paul describes in

even more detail in vv. 21-23. He says that Gentile humanity, “although they knew

God,”18 did not render to God the worship that he was due. Instead, their thinking

became depraved and “their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21). How did the

people grow dark in their minds and hearts? They rejected the knowledge of God

that had been made known to them and, considering themselves to be wise in their

own right, became fools (1:22).19 Their foolishness was their idolatry as they made a

very unprofitable move, “exchanging” the glory of God for “images resembling

mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:23).

With statements like those found in v.18-23, Paul echoes the standard Jewish

polemic against idolatry derived from the Old Testament and inter-testamental

literature which refer to Israel’s idolatry or the idolatry of the nations.20 It also seems
16
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 1540, Reprint, Trans. by
John Owen, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), 70.
17
Moo,103 n. 56; Cranfield, 113-114.
18
When Paul says “although knowing God” (gno,ntej to.n qeo.n), it seems clear from context that he
does not mean that these Gentiles had a saving relationship to God. Rather, As Fitzmyer says, “the word
gnontes connotes an inceptive, theoretical sort of information about God, which Paul thinks that pagans
could not help but have.” (Fitzmyer, 281)
19
This wisdom to man/foolishness to God theme is expounded upon in greater detail in 1 Cor 1-4.
20
Dunn, 61. Dunn connects Paul’s language especially to Ps 106:20, but also says that it seems very clear
that Paul has in mind Jer 2:11 and Isa 44:9-20. It is also likely, according to Dunn, that Paul has portions of
the Wisdom of Solomon in mind.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 8

that, with the threefold division of the animal kingdom, Paul is alluding to the

creation story. Paul is probably, though, not describing either Adam and Eve’s fall or

the various sins of Israel, but rather he is describing “the terrible proclivity of all

people to corrupt the knowledge of God they possess by making gods of their

own.”21

1:24-25: Now Paul says that because22 of the exchange of the knowledge of

God for idolatry, God “gave them up”23 to follow the evil dictates of their lustful

hearts (1:24). And again Paul restates the reason for God’s giving the people up,

“because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the

creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (1:25).

1:26-27: Whereas v. 24 shows the giving up of people in very general terms,

and v. 28 sees God’s handing over of pagans to their sin in a similarly broad way,

vv.26-27 get surprisingly specific as Paul trots out homosexuality as one of the

results of God’s turning-over of humankind to sin. “For this reason,” Paul says,

doubtless referring to mankind’s ridiculous exchange detailed in v. 25, “God gave

them up to dishonorable passions” (1:26).24 What are these dishonorable passions?

Paul provides an illustration by describing homosexual sex, a characteristic Jewish

criticism against Gentiles.25

21
Moo, 109-110 n. 85; Moo says that a reference to Adam and Eve’s fall in the garden is unlikely because
“in Gen 1-3, “idolatry”…precedes the fall; in Rom 1, a “fall” precedes idolatry.”
22
The conjunction that stands at the beginning of this verse, Dio;, indicates that Paul is basing his present
assertion on what immediately precedes it.
23
Gk. pare,dwken. This idea of God’s “handing over” to sin is central to the passage, as the repetition of
this verb shows (cf. v. 26; 28).
24
“The introductory phrase Dia. tou/to explains the deliverance to dishonest relationships as the fitting
response to the deceptive assault of humankind on the status of God.” (Robert Jewett, Romans: A
Commentary, ed. Eldon Jay Epp (Hermeneia: Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007) 172.
25
Moo, 114.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 9

He declares that “their women26 exchanged natural relations for those that are

contrary to nature; and the men27 likewise gave up natural relations with women and

were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with

men and receiving in themselves the due penalty from their error” (1:26b-27).

But why does Paul single out homosexuality as an example of the gross

depravity that has resulted because humankind has rejected the knowledge of God?

Doubtless it is because it was a particular moral issue that would have caused

revulsion in the Jewish and Christian communities of this time, as well as among

traditional Romans.28 Bringing to the fore such a despicable vice would surely draw

his audience into the argument that he is making; namely, that the Gentile pagans

stand condemned by God for idolatry. It is also possible that Paul’s example would

have achieved an even greater rhetorical effect due to the mentioning of lesbianism

first, and Murray notes that the text could be rendered thus, “for even their

women...”29 He follows with a description of male homosexuality, saying that men

too commit abominable sexual acts and receive, “the due penalty for their error.”

What is this penalty? And what is their error which earns the penalty? The error is

not the homosexual behavior. Rather, the error is the quenching of the truth (v. 18)

and the idolatrous exchange (v.25). The penalty then, is the abandonment by God to

gross eroticism.30

26
Gk. Qh:leiai. As Moo shows, Paul’s use of qh:luV/ajvrshn (male/female) instead of
guvnh/ajnhvr (man/woman) highlights the sexual distinctiveness of men and women. This is probably
also a direct reference to the creation account which says that God “made them male and female” (cf. Gen
1:27). Cf. Moo, 114 n. 114.
27
Gk. avjrsenes. See n. 22.
28
Jewett, 173. Jewett notes that Nero was castigated by the Roman people for “dressing Greek” and
expressing bisexual desires.
29
Murray, 47.
30
Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on Romans, Trans. by A. Cusin (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1880), 181.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 10

1:28-32: In his last section airing dirty Gentile laundry, Paul continues with

the same “exchange” theme. Since humankind did not decide (and does not decide)

to give proper acknowledgment to God, God “gave them up to a debased mind to do

what ought not to be done” (1:28). And the result of God’s handing them over is the

promulgation of gross wickedness, the filling of life with “all manner of

unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice” (1:29). To illustrate this fact Paul

produces a litany of Gentile sins in the form of a typical Hellenistic Jewish “vice

list.”31 It is difficult to discern a hard and fast arrangement to the vice list, but it

seems that there is at least a general structure. Moo notes that the first four terms are

very general descriptions of depravity; “unrighteousness, evil, covetousness,

malice.” The next five revolve around “envy” and all the things that go in her

basket. The structure in the last twelve vices is a little harder to make out. And at

this point Moo provides priceless insight, “Paul focuses on social ills…leaving out

sins against God directly. The purpose of this recital…is to show the general scope

of social evils produced by the “unqualified mind” to which God has handed sinners

over.”32 Paul concludes this section with by saying that the Gentiles, even though

they know that their engagement in the vices of vv.29-31 will incur guilt and lead to

death, not only carry out their sins but approve of their sins and encourage others to

practice the same things.33

Exegetical Conclusion: For centuries, and I would contend, since the ink dried on

the papyrus of the Romans autograph, Christians have read this first chapter of

Romans and seen an unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality. To be more

31
Dunn, 67; Moo, 118.
32
Moo, 118-119.
33
Ibid, 121-122.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 11

exegetically precise, they have seen homosexuality as a manifestation of the wrath of

God, the “due penalty” for the error of exchanging solid knowledge of God revealed

in nature for idolatrous worship. In fact, the view has been that the apostle Paul

singles it out as a particularly egregious result of not responding properly to God. In

recent times, as McLaren’s quote shows, the water has been muddied, even by those

who voice an affirmation for scriptural authority. For this reason I would like to turn

our discussion towards the two main ways in which scholars have attempted to

interpret Romans 1:26-27 differently.34 The first interpretation, that of Robin

Scroggs, attempts to show why Paul is not talking about consensual adult

homosexuality. The second interpretation, that of John Boswell, asserts that Paul

only condemns homosexual sex committed by people with a heterosexual

orientation. After describing these interpretations (and the exegetical moves made to

arrive at them), I will provide some reasons why these approaches are sorely

deficient.

Robin Scroggs’ Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27

34
I do not mean that these are the only two ways that people disagree with Paul. However, these are the
two representative ways that people can try to “have their cake and eat it too.” That is, these are both
efforts at continuing, in some manner, to affirm the authority of Scripture without affirming that Scripture
teaches that homosexuality is sinful. A third view of note is that of Margaret Davies. Her article, “New
Testament Ethics and Ours: Homosexuality and Sexuality in Romans 1:26-27,” she advances the argument
that Paul does clearly condemn homosexual sex, but she easily gets out from under this conclusion with the
thesis of her article, which is simply that Paul is inconsistent in retaining this tradition while jettisoning
others (cf. Margaret Davies, “New Testament Ethics and Ours: Homosexuality and Sexuality in Romans,”
Biblical Interpretation 3,3 (1995): 315-333.) Further, I have determined to limit my interlocutors to
scholars who have done academic and not popular work on the topic. I believe this is the best route
because the more popular works are typically dependent upon, and synthesize the work of scholars like
Scroggs or Boswell. For more popular works depending on Scroggs and Boswell cf. Daniel A. Helminiak,
What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality (Tajique, NM: 2000) and Walter Wink, “Homosexuality
and the Bible” (Not dated), http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink (Accessed
May 2, 2007).
Wilcoxen, M.A. 12

In Robin Scroggs’ pioneering work, The New Testament and Homosexuality,35

he argues that the only type of homosexuality that Paul could have possibly had in

mind, and so the only type of homosexuality that Paul could have condemned, was

pederasty.36 He spends much time in trying to establish the fact that this was the

type of homosexuality that was present in the ancient world and that Paul would

have had no construct for man with man, consensual, non-oppressive homosexual

relationships. While I obviously can not respond comprehensively to Scroggs’ use of

background information, I will reference some devastating criticisms of his

selectivity in displaying evidence for his conclusion. But first we should take a look

at the exegetical/hermeneutical moves he makes with regard to Rom 1:26-27.

First, Scroggs says that we must look at the larger theological context of

Romans 1:26-27. Scroggs says that this passage (Rom 1:18-32), rather than the

reference to Adam in Romans 5 is Paul’s “real story” of the universal fall of

humankind.37 He says that Paul is taking this argument from Jewish sources (as

noted above), particularly the Wisdom of Solomon writing. Paul, rather than harping

on the ridiculousness of idolatrous worship instead focuses his attention on what

Scroggs calls “the deepest cause of idolatry, namely that refusal to acknowledge the

true, sovereign God, which refusal brings in its turn, false gods, false world, false

self-awareness, and false perspectives on human activity.”38

From this theological context, Scroggs says, Paul then gives illustrations of

the results of living in the false world, itself a result of false worship. God’s wrath
35
Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary
Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).
36
Pederasty refers to homosexual sex between an older male and a younger man or a boy. Typically the
younger man is the passive partner in this sexual exchange.
37
Ibid., 110.
38
Ibid., 112.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 13

then, for Paul, is revealed in the fact that these pagans are living and acting in this

false world. He illustrates this with three successive “handed over” statements. The

first, vv.24-25, concerns the hearts and bodies and for these Paul provides no

illustration. The second, vv. 26-27, concerns the passions (emotions), and here Paul

gives the illustration of illicit homosexual behavior. The third, vv.28ff, concerns the

mind, and here Paul gives a vigorous vice list. Scroggs says that Paul is “conforming

to his rhetorical instincts, each succeeding section having a greater intensity.” And

from this analysis Scroggs draws the following conclusion: “the illustrations are

secondary to [Paul’s] basic theological structure…This does not, of course, imply

that Paul is not judging homosexuality, but it does suggest that the Apostle is not

‘out to get them,’ as some people have assumed.”39

From the above analysis I deduce that Scroggs is making an effort to soften

the blow of Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, especially since he leaves open

the possibility that Paul is actually judging homosexuality. Scroggs though, after

performing perfunctory “exegesis” on the passage, then sweeps away the possibility

that Paul might be making a moral declaration on the topic of homosexuality. How

does he come to this conclusion? First, he says that Paul’s comments on

homosexuality are rhetorical in nature and “do not belong in any way to Paul’s

ethical admonitions.”40 Next, he says that these verses attacking homosexuality

depend on “Hellenistic Jewish propaganda against Gentiles.”41 And herein lies the

crux of Scroggs’ argument: “While the phrase “males with males” relates to the laws
39
Ibid., 112-114. The emphasis is Scroggs’. If my reader feels hard pressed to understand how Scroggs
comes to this conclusion, I am able to empathize. If Scroggs has sound logic behind the conclusions that he
comes to here, he does not make this explicit. I feel that I have fairly represented his train of thought, but
would encourage my reader to refer to his book to make sure.
40
Ibid., 116.
41
Ibid.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 14

in Leviticus, the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty, just as was

Philo. There was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world

which could come to mind.”42 Scroggs’ conclusion is that Paul is using Hellenistic

Jewish rhetoric to advance a theological argument, and that this rhetoric was aimed

at condemning pederasty and not homosexuality.

So then, the central claim to be evaluated in Scroggs’ exegetical work on

Romans 1:26-27 is the central claim of his book: namely, that Paul’s only construct

for thinking of homosexuality is the practice of pederasty. It will be obvious to the

reader that this is a startling claim and that, if it is correct, it would alter the way in

which we read Romans 1:26-27. But, I ask, is it a true, verifiable claim? There are

at least two main pieces of evidence that leave Scroggs’ claim in ruins.

First, the massive amounts of writing that remain from antiquity do not

confirm Scroggs’ claim that Paul would have known nothing of mutual, consensual,

adult with adult homosexuality. Again, it is not sustainable to say, as Scroggs does,

that the only form of homosexuality that Paul knew of was pederasty. “I know of no

suggestions in the texts that homosexual relationships existed between same-age

adults.”43 Indeed, if one probes the literature even at a very elementary level, one

must wonder how Scroggs’ library could be so sorely deficient!

Scroggs seems to be aware, at least somewhat, that there are clear instances

of nonpederastic examples of homosexuality in antiquity, for he includes as an

appendix a chapter titled “On the Question of Nonpederastic Male Homosexuality.”44

42
Ibid. The emphasis is mine.
43
Ibid., 35. The emphasis is Scroggs’.
44
Ibid., 130-139. It is besides the point, but it seems telling that Scroggs has relegated something that
should be central to the argument of his book to an appendix. Why shouldn’t these inevitable objections be
dealt with in the body of the work?
Wilcoxen, M.A. 15

Mark D. Smith, a historian specializing in the ancient Roman Empire, notes that

“Scroggs spends much of this appendix conquering a meager battalion of straw

men.”45 Smith notes that

The primary weakness of Scroggs’s analysis of this issue lies in the

chronology of the evidence. He does not reckon adequately with the fact

that pederasty was most common among the social elite in some Greek

city-states during the archaic and classical periods—400 years and more

before Paul. From the time of the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BCE),

evidence for pederastic practices declines considerably, though other

homosexual practices continue unabated….Cantarella demonstrates that in

the Roman Republic, pederasty was considered the “Greek vice,” which

true Romans reviled, but that did not prevent them from engaging in other

forms of homosexual activity.46

In his appendix Scroggs gives a short list of evidence for nonpederastic

homosexuality in the ancient world. He cites evidence for 1) “Homosexuality

between Youths of Approximately the Same Age” and 2) “Adult Eromenoi.”47

Despite the evidence that he cites, he is able to say without reserve that these do

not show “a real alternative to pederasty.”48


45
Mark D. Smith, “Ancient Bisexuality and the Intepretation of Romans 1:26-27” The Journal of the
American Academy of Religion 64:2 (1996): 233.
46
Ibid. Smith is here citing Eva Cantarella, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Trans. by C. O Culleanain
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 64.
47
Scroggs, 133-138. By “Adult Eromenoi” Scroggs means to designate those who, though adults,
remained in the passive, pederastic role. He gives three reasons as to why adult males might be in this role;
1) they chose this lifestyle because it was personally pleasing (here he cites the beautiful Agathon from
Plato’s Symposium), 2) they chose this lifestyle because it was lucrative (here he cites Naevolus in
Juvenal’s Satire IX), or 3) they were slaves and had no choice (like Nero’s slave Sporus who was dressed
like a woman and became Nero’s “wife”).
48
Ibid., 138. Due to space constraints I have not taken the time to give Scroggs’ full definition of
pederasty. He does define it fairly broadly; the main conditions are 1) age difference and 2) active/passive
distinctions (34-35). This allows Scroggs the ability to conveniently fit adult homosexual relationships into
Wilcoxen, M.A. 16

Despite Scroggs’ assertion, Smith is able to marshal a considerable amount

of evidence to the contrary:49

1) The finding of twelve Attic vases that depict at least twelve scenes of

homosexual sex involving two or more bearded men.

2) Agathon from Plato’s Symposium chose to remain in his role of lover to

Pausanius long after becoming an adult. Further, Pausanius is portrayed in the

Symposium as giving a speech showing that his relationship to the beautiful

Agathon is superior to typical pederastic relationships because it was based on

their mutual consent and care for one another (180c-185c).

3) In Plato’s Euthydemus Ctesippus and Cleinias, both young men of about

the same age, are lovers (273a-274d).

4) He offers a citation from Xenophon’s Memorobilia. In this work

Xenophon refers to men “using men as women” (2.1.30).50

5) Xenophon also speaks, in the Anabasis, of Menon having a barbarian

lover, who is a bearded man older than himself (2.6.28).

6) Aristotle describes two men who made a household together and

remained together for the duration of their lives, even vowing to be buried side-

by-side (Politics 2.96-7).

7) The Roman emperor Caligula (37-43 CE) is said to have been attached

to Lepidus, a married man, as both an active and passive partner (Cf. Dio Cassius

59.11.1).

his definition.
49
The different examples cited here all come from Smith’s article. Cf. Smith, 234-237.
50
Smith notes that Xenophon quite clearly refers to “men” and not “youths or boys.” Smith, 235.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 17

8) Ancient literature also shows some examples of men who are said to be

married to other males; Cicero refers to Murcus Antonius’ past relationship with

Curio (Philippics 2.18.44-45), and Cicero also speaks of Catilina and his

boyfriend-wife Gabinius (Post reditum in Senatu 4).

This brief summary of texts, most of which are completely left out of

Scroggs’ analysis, is sufficient to show that Scroggs was either a) ignorant of

these very relevant texts or b) that he was very selective in only choosing texts

that would support his main thesis. His attempt at an appendix, then, does little to

support his assertion that the only type of homosexuality Paul knew was

pederasty.

Second, the inclusion of lesbianism in this illustration serves to confirm

the notion that Paul is speaking of all homosexual activity and not merely

pederasty.51 This statement can be confidently made because of the fact that, by

Scroggs’ own admission, there is no mention of female pederasty in ancient

sources, and little mention of lesbianism at all.52 Further, the instances of

lesbianism that do appear in the literature are quite clearly in reference to adult

lesbianism. This lesbianism is not condemned because it is an exploitative,

oppressive act (like Scroggs’ description of male pederasty). Rather, it is

51
I am here operating on the nearly universal assumption that Romans 1:26 contains a clear reference to
female homosexuality, pederastic or not. I am not unaware of James E. Miller’s argument that this verse is
referring to unnatural heterosexual practices, while 1:27 condemns male homosexuality. Miller’s
interpretation is too eccentric to be taken too seriously. Plus, he seems to completely ignore the parallels
between this verse and Plato and Philo (see below). Cf. James E. Miller, “The Practices of Romans 1:26:
Homosexual or Heterosexual?” Novum Testamentum 37 (Jan 1995): 1-11.
52
Scroggs, 140.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 18

condemned because it is “against nature.”53 It is “against nature” because it does

not allow for the goal of reproduction to occur. Consider the fact that:

1) In the Timaeus, Plato depicts the male penis as something which originally

served only to empty the bladder. After the creation of the desire for reproductive

intercourse, the gods bored a hole in the penis into the marrow which would allow

the life-giving sperm to come out (91a). The penis, at this point, became a living

creature with a “nature”; the nature of the penis was to procreate (91b). A parallel

story is contained in the Timaeus to account for the “nature” of the woman’s

womb.54 Similarly the Laws contains prohibitions against intercourse which does

not at least serve the possibility of reproduction, including adultery55

2) Philo, following Plato, condemns all sex that does not have at least the

possibility of procreation. This includes sex with a menstruating wife (Spec. leg.

3.32), or with a wife who is barren (Spec. leg. 3.34).

These two authors, who do mention lesbianism in much the same manner

as Paul does,56 both serve to confirm the notion that when Paul was condemning

what was “against nature” he was not condemning female with female sex that

was oppressive or abusive, but rather he was condemning lesbianism because it

was a use of sex that was not in accordance with its original use and intention

given to it by the Creator.

53
Gk. para; fusin, the same term that Paul uses in Romans 1:26 to condemn the sexual acts depicted
there.
54
Roy Bowen Ward, “Why Unnatural? The Tradition behind Romans 1:26-27,” Harvard Theological
Review 90:3 (1997): 264-267.
55
Ibid., 268-269.
56
Both texts use the male/female language instead of man/woman language (see n.27). Also, both texts use
the similar “against nature” language.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 19

The condemnation of lesbianism in our passage shows that Paul is

similarly condemning male homosexuality. This is evident because of the

parallelism present in vv. 1:26-27. The women are said to exchange natural

relations for those which are “contrary to nature” (1:26). It is then asserted that

the men similarly are guilty of giving up natural relations (1:27). Since it does

seem clear that the only construct that Paul had for speaking of female sex was a

broadly defined lesbianism that was not specifically or necessarily pederasty, and

since the language Paul uses to refer to this lesbianism does not speak of any age

differential, it seems most natural to read the parallel “men committing shameless

acts with men” as a parallel type of homosexuality which is also being

condemned on account of it being “against nature.”57 Since “against nature”

refers in Plato and Philo (two widely known authors in antiquity) to sex that does

not serve a procreative purpose, it seems most natural to think of Paul as using the

term in the same way here.

Thus, I conclude that it is not a sustainable claim to say that Paul is only

condemning pederasty in Romans 1:26-27. When Scroggs says that Paul’s only

awareness of homosexuality was the practice of pederasty, and so it follows that

he must be speaking of that practice in Rom 1:26-27, Scroggs begs the question.

John Boswell’s Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27

John Boswell, like Scroggs, tries to maintain that Scripture is authoritative

while ruling out a total condemnation of homosexuality. He offers a different

57
James B. DeYoung, “The Meaning of “Nature” In Romans 1 And Its Implications For Biblical
Proscriptions Of Homosexual Behavior,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31/4
(December 1988): 439.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 20

interpretation in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.58 His route

around a total condemnation is to say that when Paul condemns that which is

“against nature” he is speaking only of things a person does that are against his or

her personal “nature.” Therefore Paul is only condemning homosexual behavior

done by people with a heterosexual orientation and not homosexual behavior that

comes from a homosexual “nature.”59

Boswell’s analysis of the passage goes something like this: 1) he notes that

the interpretation which says that Rom 1:26-27 condemns only temple prostitution

is an inadequate interpretation of this text; 2) he says that this reference to

homosexuality is a “mundane analogy to this theological sin [of rejecting God]; it

is patently not the crux of this argument”;60 3) Boswell says that what Paul

condemns here are not homosexuals per se, but rather they are “homosexual acts

committed by apparently heterosexual persons.”61 So it is that Boswell introduces

a caveat into the equation; now we have two different types of people: those who

are homosexuals by nature and heterosexuals by nature who commit homosexual

acts.

Boswell supports this claim with two lines of reasoning: First, he says that

Paul had no concept of “natural law” and so it is anachronistic to impose this

concept on him. In Boswell’s own words, “‘nature’ was not a question of

universal law or truth but, rather, a matter of the character of some person or

group of persons.” Put simply: “nature” refers to an individual’s makeup and


58
John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from
the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1980).
59
Ibid., 109.
60
Ibid., 108-109.
61
Ibid., 109.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 21

orientation and not a universal moral law or design.62 So when Paul says “against

nature,” Boswell sees this as referring to the individual personal nature of the

people in question.63 Boswell’s evidence for this assertion is basically a) a quote

from John Chrysostom to the effect that those involved in the activity of Rom

1:26-27 were those who left the natural enjoyment of the opposite sex, and b) that

Paul only thought of heterosexual people committing homosexual acts and may

not have even been aware of the fact that gay persons exist.64

Second, Boswell does not like the translation “against nature.”65 He

prefers to render the phrase as “in excess of nature.”66 This translation softens the

blow of condemnation even for those heterosexuals acting homosexually. As

Boswell sees it, “it signifies behavior which is unexpected, unusual, or different

from what would occur in the normal order of things: “beyond nature,” perhaps,

but not “immoral.””67 To show that the phrase does not necessarily have a

negative connotation he cites Rom 11:24 which says that the Gentiles were

“grafted contrary to nature [para; fusin] into a good olive tree.”68 From this he

concludes that because the Gentiles rejected the knowledge of God they likewise

rejected their own sexual “nature” and went beyond what was natural. “It cannot

be inferred from this that Paul considered mere homoerotic attraction or practice

62
Ibid., 110-111.
63
Ibid., 111.
64
Ibid., 109. The quote from John Chrysostom comes from In Epistolam ad Romanos, homily 4 (PG,
60:415-22).
65
Gk. para; fusin
66
Boswell, 109.
67
Ibid., 112.
68
Ibid. Boswell cites the KJV.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 22

morally reprehensible, since the passage strongly implies that he was not

discussing persons who were by inclination gay…”69

What can be said to Boswell’s assertions? First, in response to the

argument that Paul had no concept of “natural law” we should note that most

scholars agree that there are many instances in the Greco-Roman philosophical

literature in which “natural” behavior is pitted against “unnatural” behavior,

particularly when it comes to the topic of heterosexual vs. homosexual behavior.

For example, Stoic-Cynic philosopher, Dio Chrysostom, in a charge against

brother-keeping is able to refer to Aphrodite as one “whose name stands for the

natural [kata; fusin] intercourse and union of the male and female” (Discourse

7.135). 70 Another clear example of “natural law” coming from the Greeks is

found in Plutarch as Daphnaeus contrasts a “union contrary to nature with males”

with the natural “love between men and women.” Daphnaeus continues to

disparage homosexuals when a few sentences later we find that they are said to be

acting “contrary to nature” [para; fusin] when they “allow themselves in Plato’s

words ‘to be covered and mounted like cattle’” (Dialogue on Love 751C, E).

Both of these examples should serve to confirm the fact that, at least in the

classical Greek world, there was a concept that certain sexual behavior was

universally “against nature” and also that there was also a concept of what was

“natural” as it pertains to sexual relations.71

However, some, correctly noting that Paul was not a classical Greek

philosopher but a Hellenist Jew, might inquire as to whether the Hellenists


69
Ibid.
70
Richard B. Hays, “Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans
1,” The Journal of Religious Ethics, 14 (1, 1986): 192-193.
71
Ibid., 193.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 23

maintained the same sense of “natural law.” It seems quite clear that they did

retain this concept and language, although they explicitly grounded what was

“according to nature” in the creation narrative of the OT. In the

pseudepigraphical literature we read a warning to the Jews to not become like the

people of Sodom “which changed the order of nature” (T. Naph 3:4-5). Further,

the concept of “natural law” is also present in Philo’s writings. He typically uses

the “contrary/according to nature” language, and he sees sexual aberrations as a

violation of natural law (On Abraham 135-136).72 Though it may not be the only

way that Hellenistic Jews referred to “nature,” it becomes clear that they at least

refer to certain behaviors as being universally against or in accordance with

“nature.”

It is generally accepted that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew. It is also true,

however, that he broke from the Hellenistic tradition at points. However, it is

important to establish the fact that Paul would have undoubtedly had the construct

for thinking of things in terms of “natural law.” The question remains, is this

what Paul was speaking of in Romans 1:26-27? Or was he speaking, as Boswell

would contend, of a person’s own personal “nature”? I believe quite strongly that

Paul was speaking in terms of a Hebraicized “natural law” based on God’s

intention in creation and not on the person’s individualized “nature.”

First of all, Paul uses arguments from natural law elsewhere in his writings. In 1

Corinthians 11:14-15 Paul says “does not nature73 itself teach you that if a man

has long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her

72
DeYoung, 433-434.
73
Gk. fuvsiV
Wilcoxen, M.A. 24

glory?”74 There is no reason, then, why Paul would not or could not argue from

“nature” in Romans 1. Second, it seems that Paul’s Hellenistic Jewish worldview,

deriving its anthropology from the creation narrative in Genesis, would have seen

people’s individual natures as something which applies to all of corporate

humanity. Lastly, Paul’s use of the phrase “natural relations”75 in Rom 1:26 refers

to the relations as being unnatural and contains no clear reference to the

individual’s nature or orientation. Further, when Paul says that they exchanged

the normal relations for what is “contrary to nature,”76 he leaves out any

possessive pronoun that would indicate that he was speaking of the individual’s

nature. It seems most natural therefore to accept, instead of an argument from

silence, the interpretation that sees Paul here referring to people acting contrary to

“nature,” which God himself blessed and called “very good” (Gen 1:31).

In response to Boswell’s insistence that we translate “contrary to nature”

as “beyond nature,” I must say that I am unsure of what this would accomplish. Is

Boswell trying to now soften the condemnation of heterosexuals acting

homosexually? It is unclear what his intention is. Further, if as Boswell says,

Paul is not condemning anything as “immoral” then why does verse 27 conclude

by saying that those spoken of here are “receiving in themselves the due penalty

for their error”? It seems as if Boswell is grasping for straws in trying to get us to

look at this passage differently.

CONCLUSION
74
Cf. David E. Malick. “The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27.” Bibliotheca Sacra
150 (July-September 1993): 331-332. In citing 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 I in no way intend to enter the
debate about Paul’s “long hair” discussion or head coverings. This passage does, however, show us that
Paul argues from nature in the sense that he appeals to a universal “natural law.”
75
Gk. th;n fusikh;n crh:sin
76
Gk. para; fusin
Wilcoxen, M.A. 25

Pastoral Considerations:

I am confident that this essay will establish the traditional interpretation

that Paul condemns, in Romans 1:26-27 especially, all homosexual behavior. The

unique attempts of Robin Scroggs and John Boswell to interpret these verses

differently have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. As believers in

the inspiration and the authority of Holy Scripture, we are left then with clear

evidence that homosexuality is one manifestation of God’s wrath on a rebellious

world. This is not a happy passage, especially for those who have homosexual

friends or who might find themselves allured by homoerotic opportunities. And

here it is that McLaren gets the question right: what does a pastoral response to

homosexuality look like? The answer to the question, however, is not agnosticism.

First of all, it is the Christian duty to submit to the authority of God. We

are to agree with divine writ as to what is good and what is evil. Though Romans

1:26-27 present homosexuality as a manifestation of God’s wrath and not

necessarily the impetus for God’s wrath, 1:32 reminds us that “those who practice

such things deserve to die.” Therefore we mustn’t entertain any soft notions of

depravity. Rather, as the well known quote from the Puritan John Owen goes, we

are to “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing [us].” Homosexuality must be

condemned as sin and treated seriously.

Once the sinfulness of homosexuality is granted, questions will arise about

how those within the church who struggle with this sin are to be counseled and

helped. The first thing to say on this note is that passing off homosexual behavior

as good or even benign is not spiritually helpful. How helpful would it be if we


Wilcoxen, M.A. 26

counseled other men by telling them that it is okay for them to download porn on

the internet, or that God is fine with them cheating on their wife, or their taxes for

that matter? This would be the worst thing that we could do.

Second, we must be careful as to how we think about homosexuality in

comparison with other sins. The good thing about our culture’s growing tolerance

of homosexuality is that it allows us not to be confined under a cultural bigotry

with reference to this particular issue. However, we may be tempted to discount

homosexuality as a sin because of the common notion that some people are “just

born that way.” This may in fact be true, and one conservative theologian is

encouraging people to brace themselves for the scientific establishment of this

fact.77 I would like to point out though that Christians have affirmed for centuries

the idea that sin is “inherited corruption,” something that has been passed down to

us from our ancestors dating all the way back to Adam.78 It should come as no

surprise then, that homosexuality may be inherited. This fact should not cause us

to treat it as any less sinful. Of course, it would be an egregious error to treat it as

something that is somehow more sinful or perverse than other sins.

Third, we must deal with homosexuality (and all other sin) with an

emphasis on the grace and mercy that flow from the justification by faith that is

ours through the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Further, we must also

emphasize, as Paul does, the fact that we have taken part in a radical realm-

transfer, moving from the realm of sin and death to the realm of righteousness and

life (6:1-13). As Christians, new converts or otherwise, struggle with homosexual


77
Albert Mohler, “Is Your Baby Gay? What If You Could Know? What If You Could Do Something About
It?” (2007), http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=891 (Accessed May 2, 2007).
78
Cf. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids,
Zondervan: 1994) 496-497.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 27

desires we must provide them with some affirming reminders. We must remind

them of the fact that they were baptized into Christ’s death and that they were

raised with him in order that they might also “walk in newness of life” (6:4).

They are free from slavery to sin; the fact of the matter is that sin does not now

reign over them (6:6-7). We must remind them of the necessity of “reckoning”

themselves dead to sin. Sin will still be a struggle for them, but God lays some

responsibility on his people to “work out their salvation” with the motivation that

“God is the one who is working” (Phil 2:12-13). And we must also remind them

that we are available to them in all of their struggles to pray with them and for

them, and to stick by them through success and failure. That means, of course,

that we must actually be willing to provide such faithfulness. We are to fulfill the

divine command: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”

(Gal 6:2).

In our relations with the outside world, we must struggle to make sure that

we are not seen as being particularly opposed to this one sin, homosexuality. We

ought to contend for the faith and to seek the wellbeing of our cities and states by

trying to keep the homosexual onslaught at bay. However, as we do this, our

number one priority should be to know homosexuals, love homosexuals, and

proclaim Jesus to homosexuals. The church must seek to be known as those who

extend God’s grace and mercy to homosexuals by being messengers bringing

news of salvation from homosexuality in the same way that we are to bring news

of salvation from greed, anger, abuse, murder, false religions, pride, and all other

forms that our corruption takes.


Wilcoxen, M.A. 28

Works Cited

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay


People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the
Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. 1540.
Reprint. Trans. by John Owen. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 1947.

Cranfield, C.E.B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.
ICC, 45 vol. 1. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975.

Davies, Margaret. “New Testament Ethics and Ours: Homosexuality and Sexuality in
Romans 1:26-27.” Biblical Interpretation, 3,3 (1995): 315-31.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 29

DeYoung, James B. “The Meaning of “Nature” in Romans 1 and Its Implications for
Biblical Proscriptions of Homosexual Behavior.” The Journal of the Evangelical
Theological Society, 31/4 (December 1988): 429-41.

Dunn, James D.G. Romans 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson,
2003.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.


AB. New York: Doubleday, 1993

Godet, Frederic Louis. Commentary on Romans. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1880.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand


Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1989.

________. ‘‘Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of


Romans 1.’’ The Journal of Religious Ethics, 14 (1986): 184–215.

Helminiak, Daniel A. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Tajique, NM:
Alamo Square Press, 2000.

Malick, David E. “The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27.”


Bibliotheca Sacra, 150 (July-September 1993): 327-40.

McLaren, Brian. “Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral


Response” (2006),
http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2006/01/brian_mclaren_o.html
(Accessed May 2, 2007).
Miller, James E. “The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual?”
Novum Testamentum, 37 (January 1995): 1-11.

Mohler, Albert. “Is Your Baby Gay? What If You Could Know? What if You Could Do
Something About It?” (2007),
http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=891 (Accessed May 2, 2007).

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. New International Commentaries on the
New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.

Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for
Contemporary Debate. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.
Wilcoxen, M.A. 30

Smith, Mark D. “Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27.”


Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 64:2 (1996): 223-56.

Ward, Roy Bowen. “Why Unnatural? The Tradition Behind Romans 1:26-27.” Harvard
Theological Review, 90:3 (1997): 263-84.

Wink, Walter. “Homosexuality and the Bible” (Not dated),


http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink (Accessed May
2, 2007).