The only other extensive passage purported to deal with the condemnation of homosexuality is Romans 1, one of the most famous and most misunderstood passages in all of the New Testament.
The first issue is context. What is Paul talking about in the whole passage here? It is commonly thought that in chapter 1 Paul is addressing pagan Gentiles and in chapter 2 he then turns to disobedient Jews. But as popular as this reading might be, it is wrong. The context for the entire letter is Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel. Has it come to naught? If the promised judgment against Israel will truly be the end of Israel, then what of the promises and the faithfulness of God? The entire book begins this way (1:16-17) and Paul does not suddenly change the subject in verse 18. His focus is on Israel and God’s promises concerning her.
The “wrath of God” is unveiled from heaven against “all the wickedness and injustice within humanity” (my translation). These wicked people are said to “suppress the truth in injustice,” but, as we shall see, this is actually talking about how the Jews treated Jesus; they “suppress the Truth in injustice.” This has nothing to do with abstract “truth” in nature and everything to do with the revealed worship of Yahweh in the Temple and the manifestation of God in the flesh.
In fact, while many translations render verse 19 abstractly, there is nothing in the passage to indicate this. The ESV reads: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” But this phrase “what can be known” is only one word (gnostos), which refers to an acquaintance, a rare word in the New Testament and often refers to acquaintances in the normal sense – other people. “The other disciple, who was known (gnostos) to the high priest,” (John 18:16). “And this became known (gnostos) to all the residents of Ephesus,” (Acts 19:17), for example.
Thus, returning to Romans 1:19, the Greek simply reads “For this reason (dioti) the acquaintance (gnostos) of God (theos) is manifest (phaneros) among them (en autos). I suggest, therefore, that the passage can be legitimately translated “For this reason the one Who is well known to God has shone among them.” (The word for “manifest,” phaneros, literally refers to shining, figuratively used for bringing something in the dark into light). Christ, of course, is the light of God shining into the world (John 1:5, 9-10) made manifest in the Person of Jesus (John 1:14). If this reading is correct, then Paul is talking about the Incarnation, and not “truth” in an abstract way (Jesus, of course, being the Way, Truth, and Life which Israel suppressed – John 14:6).
Given that this seems to be the case, what then is Paul talking about in vv. 20-23? Well, verse 20 is still speaking about Jesus. His “invisible attributes” have been clearly seen since the beginning in the things that have been made, making Israel without excuse. But this is still not talking about nature. For Israel, the invisible attributes of Yahweh were manifested in the visible glory of God, the Tabernacle and Temple. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Temple and the Scriptures, and thus Israel had no excuse not to recognize Him when He appeared to them. The Tabernacle and Temple also displayed “His eternal power and divine nature.” Thus, Israel has no excuse for what they did to Jesus. They knew God, but they did not honor Jesus “as God” (v. 21) or give thanks to Him as they should have, and for this reason became futile in their thinking and their hearts were darkened.
That we are talking about Israel’s worship gets much clearer in verse 23, where they are said to have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idols resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Now, it is extremely clear that this is a direct allusion to Psalm 106:20, which recounted Israel’s idolatry with the Golden Calf:
They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal idol.
They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.
They forgot God, their Deliverer, Who had done great things in Egypt,
Wondrous works in the land of Ham,
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
Therefore He said he would destroy them
–had not Moses, His Chosen One, stood in the breach before Him,
to turn away His wrath from destroying them, (Psa. 106:19-23)
Paul is also alluding to Jeremiah 2:11, though the connection is secondary compared with the almost identical phrasing of Psalm 106. The prophet Jeremiah wrote that “My people have change their glory for that which does not profit.”
What is clear is that Paul has Israel’s own failings in mind rather than the abstract sense in which we have tended to understand him. But you may be asking what this has to do with homosexuality. All of this was necessary prep work in order to correctly understand what Paul is getting at when he reaches verse 24, which begins the relevant parts of Romans 1.
“Therefore,” writes Paul – or, for this reason – “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 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,” (vv. 24-25). Paul is not speaking of atheists or scientists or pagans in this place at all. The immediate context has told us Paul is speaking of Israel here – the religious folks who did not recognize Jesus as the long-promised Messiah and crucified him and in Paul’s time were persecuting the Church of the Messiah. And this is exactly what we see in the other texts Paul is alluding to:
But My people did not listen to My voice;
Israel would not submit to Me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
To follow their own counsels.
Oh, that My people would listen to Me,
That Israel would walk in My ways! (Psa. 81:11-13)
Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone.
When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring;
their rulers dearly love shame.
A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices, (Hos. 4:17-19)
God gave these sorts of people up to the lusts of their hearts which dishonor their bodies. In fact, Paul says that God gave them up “to impurity,” and in the Greek this is akatharsia, which specifically refers to religious impurity, in this case, within the Mosaic law-code (Dunn, Romans 1-9, pp. ). That is, such behavior disqualifies them from serving in the Temple system.
Then, in verses 26-27, Paul goes on. “For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men 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 for their error.” The first thing to note about this is that we are still talking about Israel’s idolatry in worship. Israel rejected Jesus because they did not see Him reflected in the visible types and shadows of the Old Covenant Temple and sacrificial system, and has therefore turned to idolatry. For this reason, God has given them up to their desire for idolatry, which Paul frames as cult prostitution. Israel’s false worship, her rejection of Christ, was often pictured by the prophets as prostitution and fornication against Yahweh, who symbolizes their husband.
This is the tradition in which Paul stands in Romans 1. Israel’s desire is for intimate knowledge of the cult prostitutes of the nations, and what is strongly implied is that Israel’s worship itself has become cult prostitution. The condemnation in Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” finds its parallel in Deuteronomy 23:17: “None of the daughters of Israel shall be a cult prostitute, and none of the sons of Israel shall be a cult prostitute.”
Remember that we’re still dealing with a context of idolatry. Israel’s behavior is like a woman having sex with a female prostitute as part of pagan worship, and like a man that has sex with a male prostitute in the worship of pagan gods. Does Paul have actual Jews going to actual pagan worship and actually having sex with actual temple prostitutes. Possibly, but this seems unlikely to the extreme, given that his remarks are not directed at certain Jews in particular, but against Israel’s own worship, which has become compromised with idolatry, specifically identified as the suppression of Jesus, against which the “wrath of God” is coming on a “day of wrath” (Rom. 2:5).
Rather this should be seen as a metaphor concerning Israel’s own worship. Israel, as the wife of God, has taken up with cult prostitution, brought it into her own worship by rejecting Jesus, in violation of the covenant made between Israel and God. The marriage vow parallels the covenant in this place, which helps us get a better handle on what Paul means by “natural relations.”
Paul uses “natural relations” in his metaphor here to express proper worship of God, in the Person of Jesus, by means of the worship of the New Covenant community. The word “natural” (phuseikos) simply means physical or instinctive and the word “relations” (chresis) refers to sexual intercourse. Thus, Paul is referring to something that goes against instinct. But what instinct? Paul has not had “nature” in view in Romans 1, contrary to the way most evangelicals read the passage, and what is translated “natural” simply means something that is instinctive. But instinctive to who? The people he has in mind are Israel, the people whom God has “married” by covenant. Thus, Paul refers to the instinctive practices of a heterosexual couple that has taken vows to one another. A married women taking up with another person is against instinct enough, let alone taking up with cult prostitutes. A heterosexual woman taking up with another woman is against the instinct of heterosexuality, and therefore against its “nature.” A married heterosexual man taking up with a male cult prostitute is also against the nature of heterosexuality.
But what of actual gay people? Well, we recall that Paul employs this metaphor to refer to Israel’s false worship, to drive home his point that in rejecting Jesus Israel has rejected her husband and gone whoring after other gods and their worship practices. His metaphor addresses a heterosexual couple which engages in breaking their marital vows and taking up with people that goes against the instinct of their orientation. Of course, we know that the instinct of gay people does not run in the same direction as a heterosexual, though it is certainly natural for them in just the same way. It therefore appears that Romans 1 is more or less irrelevant for LGBTQ issues, save only that no one should go outside what is instinctive for them.
We end, then, by asking what the “due penalty of their error” is. Sadly, a large number of evangelicals (particularly of previous generations) mistook this for a reference to the HIV and AIDS epidemic, which they blamed upon the gay community. But since Paul is speaking to Israel about her false worship, it seems apparent that the penalty for their error is the “wrath of God” that will come upon them on the “day of wrath” in A.D. 70 (Rom. 1:18; 2:5).