…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. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
This is the only verse in the Bible which refers to same-sex relations between women; all the others refer to males only. And the meaning of this verse appears to be quite clear, with no ambiguity. There really is no translation issue; the Greek is mostly pretty plain. The words translated “degrading passions” (or “vile affections” KJV or “shameful lusts” NIV), ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει (exekauthēsan en te orexei) probably refer to the frenzied state of mind that many ancient mystery cults induced in worshipers by means of music, wine, and drugs. It likely describes the results of ritual sexual orgies as performed in many Roman religions at the time. Paul seems to be referring here to Pagan “fertility cult worship prevalent in Rome” at the time.
But there are still several issues with applying this verse as a universal condemnation of faithful same-sex relationships today. The first and most obvious is that Paul is talking about actual sexual practices in Greece and Rome during the first century, which included pederasty, sexual abuse of slaves and servants, ritualized temple prostitution, and Caligula/Claudius/Nero-era orgies; there was no concept of faithful, committed relationships between to adults whose exclusive sexual orientation is toward the same gender. The practices Paul had in mind were more like anonymous bathhouse sex.
But the far more important issue is to read these verses in the full context of Romans. It is a perfect example of why pulling verses out of context as bumper stickers really is not responsible or faithful to the original message. So how could there be any confusion about the blunt wording of Romans 1? Only when you continue and read Romans 2, which sets all of the previous chapter on its head!
Romans is written in a clear structure known as a “diatribe” – not in the modern sense, but in the classical philosophical sense: an attempt to see the whole picture by balancing different factors. “On the one hand…on the other hand.” This was a common rabbinical teaching tool. There is a great example in the popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye weighs the issues of his daughter’s wedding:
He’s beginning to talk like a man.
On the other hand, what kind of a match would that be with a poor tailor?
On the other hand, he is an honest, hard worker.
But on the other hand, he has absolutely nothing.
On the other hand, things could never get worse for him, only better. 1
But more importantly, this is a teaching tool used by Jesus. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Matthew 5:38-39 NRSV. If you were to quote Matthew 5:38 by itself (without 5:39) to justify retribution, you would be doing violence to the actual message of Christ. In the same way, reading Romans 1 without going on to read Romans 2 does just such violence to the overall message of Paul.
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.
Remember, the Bible wasn’t written in chapters and verses; those are later additions. Paul’s letter was intended to be read to the entire congregation in Rome, which had struggled with conflict between the orthodox Jewish believers and Gentile converts who did not see why they should follow the details of Deuteronomy. Romans must be read as a whole to be understood, and what Paul meant in chapter 1 must be balanced with chapter 2 – because the ultimate message is the balance between the two. Chapter 1 is Paul reiterating the traditional views of the orthodox Jews in the church at Rome. But then he overturns the whole idea with grace, and a reminder that we are all sinners. Chapter 1 should be understood as Paul’s acknowledgement of the dilemma of humankind; chapter 2 is his exposition of how God has saved us in Christ.
1 “Fiddler on the Roof,” Text Copyright © 1964 by Joseph Stein