Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)
Romans 1:26–27—Homosexuality is dishonorable and contrary to nature.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature;
27 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.

Two exchanges—those of the glory and truth of God for the images and lies of false gods—lead to another. Here Paul takes us deeper into the consequences of abandonment of God. Before we launch into the exposition of these verses, I offer several observations.

First, Paul likely begins his cataloging of sins with homosexuality not because it is more to be condemned, but because it violates the moral order God ordained in creation. “Nature” is critical to Paul’s argument at this point in his epistle as he focuses on the sins of Gentiles. Not only should they know about God through observation of nature (see my exposition of 1:19–20), they should know as well that homosexuality is an aberration of the natural order visible in creation. Richard Longenecker explains, with reference to Genesis 2:24–25,
With homosexuality so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world, Paul viewed that particular sexual practice as the most obvious result of humanity’s failure to respond appropriately to God’s revelation in creation. In fact, he seems to have viewed homosexuality as flagrantly in opposition to the moral order established by God in both his “general revelation” and his “special revelation,” where only the sexual joining of a man and a woman in marriage is ordained by God.

Second, a distinction must be made between same-sex attraction, which is not a sin unless it devolves to lust, and the practice of homosexuality. Third, the latter is no worse a sin than heterosexual immorality, which receives more attention in Paul’s other epistles (see 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Thessalonians 4). For references to both sins, see 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Finally, I agree with Robert Utley: “Christians have no right to act hatefully and arrogantly towards this particular sin, especially when it is obvious that all of us sin.”

The pagan background
Commentaries with extensive descriptions of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world are those by Craig Keener and Colin Kruse. Homosexuality was common in the Mediterranean cultures, but it was largely bisexual rather than exclusively homosexual, Keener reports. The predominant form of homoeroticism involved men with prepubescent and adolescent males, a practice known as pederasty. “Greeks openly admired young men’s beauty,” Keener says. Given people’s tendency to create gods in their own image, it’s not surprising Greeks attributed the same fascination to their deities. Zeus and other deities loved boys sexually.

Homosexuality seems to become more prevalent as a society becomes more comfortable. Rome serves as an example. In the earlier centuries of the republic homosexuality was rare. James De Young (cited by Kruse) points to early Roman legislation that penalized its practice. According to De Young, Rome in the second century BC, having achieved its military conquests, underwent a definitive moral crisis. This put it on a course of succumbing to homosexuality and other debauchery through the influence of Greek lifestyles and Asiatic luxury.

Jewish opposition to homosexuality
Standing out against all forms of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world was Judaism. James Dunn says early Judaism’s “antipathy to homosexuality remains a consistent and distinctive feature of Jewish understanding of what man’s createdness involves and requires” (quoted by Kruse). A Jewish text from the Maccabean era is representative of this antipathy:
Surpassing, indeed, all humans, they [Jewish men] are mindful of holy wedlock and do not engage in evil intercourse with male children, as do Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Romans, spacious Greece and many other nations, Persians, Galatians, and all Asia, transgressing the holy law of the immortal God. (Quoted by Joseph Fitzmyer)

These attitudes of course aligned with the Jewish Scriptures. Jews and many of the Gentiles as well among Paul’s audience in Rome were familiar with the OT background that would have guided their understanding of the apostle’s message. Fitzmyer comments:
Paul is clearly referring here to the conduct of active male homosexual persons and is merely echoing the OT abomination of such homosexual activity; see Lev 18:22; 20:13; Deut 23:17; 1 Kgs 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kgs 23:7; especially the Sodom story (Gen 19:1–28), often alluded to elsewhere in the OT (Judg 19:22–26; Isa 1:9–10; 3:9; Jer 23:14; Lam 4:6).

With Western culture on a path of emboldening homosexual behavior, interpreters have come forward to challenge what seems to be the obvious meaning of Paul’s language in this Romans passage. The best way to deal with those objections is to proceed through the text.

“Dishonorable passions”
The Greek noun for passions in the NT means evil desires (Colossians 3:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:5). Marvin Vincent calls passions “ungovernable affections.” He says this word conveys desires that are narrower and more intense than the word for lusts in verse 24 (Vincent calls lusts “evil longings”). In verse 27 ESV translates as passion a different Greek word that Vincent says is “a reaching out after something with the purpose of appropriating it.” ESV’s “consumed with passion” is therefore better translated “inflamed with lust” (NIV).

In verse 24 Paul elaborated the meaning of impurity with the phrase “the dishonoring of their bodies.” The phrase “dishonorable passions” must thus be seen as likewise corresponding with impurity. Paul has in mind sinful sexual passions, as his following phrases make plain.

“Contrary to nature”
As we saw in 1:19–20, God has revealed himself in nature, so that everyone who does not know about God is without excuse. Here Paul draws from nature to condemn the practice of homosexuality. As Douglas Moo puts it, “Sexual sins that are ‘against nature’ are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to ‘nature’ in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order.”

Some modern writers disregard this context in an effort to reinterpret the phrase on the basis of an alternative meaning of the word nature. If the word does not stand for God’s created order, but instead is given a relative meaning, then Paul is only forbidding behavior that is contrary to a person’s own nature. A person inclined to same-sex attraction could say that his homosexual behavior is not contrary to his nature. In this view, Paul would object only to a person behaving contrary to his nature, such as a heterosexual behaving as a homosexual.

For reasons already given, these arguments are not persuasive. Immediate context establishes the meaning of nature. The real argument is being waged against the Creator, who has the right to specify what does or does not conform to the natural order he created.

Moo says that “Paul’s use of the word ‘nature’ in this verse probably owes much to Jewish authors, particularly Philo, who included sexual morality as part of ‘natural law’ and therefore as a divine mandate applicable to all people. Violations of this law, as in the case of Sodom, are therefore considered transgressions of God’s will.” Fitzmyer says Paul refers specifically to “the order seen in the function of sexual organs themselves, which were ordained for an expression of love between man and woman and for the procreation of children.”

“Natural relations” (ESV) is literally “natural use” (“natural function,” NASB), where use is a common euphemism for sexual intercourse. Paul means “natural sexual relations” (NIV), designating godly sexuality as that between husband and wife. Within that marriage relationship there are no limits on sexual practice other than the norms of love and respect.

Is homosexuality against God’s will?
Other efforts have been made to downplay what Paul says in these verses. It has been argued, for example, that Paul does not specifically brand homosexuality as a violation of God’s will but merely as unusual and peculiar, that Paul is referring not to lesbianism but to female contraception, that Paul only condemns “unnatural” intercourse between women and men, that Paul is condemning pederasty, and that Paul is succumbing to his cultural prejudices.

Pederasty is ruled out because Paul clearly refers to consenting adults. The charge of cultural prejudice holds up only in the eyes of critics who do not believe Paul’s words are the Word of God. In that case, Scripture is irrelevant to the issue and people will follow their own understanding. The other arguments fail in the light of Paul’s wording, as noted above, and the context from verse 23. Starting there Paul draws two parallels that clearly implicate homosexual behavior as sinful and ungodly.

First is the word exchange, which appears here and in verses 23 and 25. “Natural relations” corresponds with “the glory of the immortal God” and “the truth about God,” whereas “contrary to nature” corresponds with idolatry and lie. Paul thus aligns homosexuality with that which is ungodly and an evil deception.

Second is the phrase gave them up. With this set of parallels Paul equates “impurity” in verse 24 with “dishonorable passions” here and “a debased mind” in verse 28. Again Paul indirectly condemns homosexuality for its perversion of God’s will. Paul’s threefold repetition of these words and phrases also served a rhetorical purpose, as he wanted to drive home these points when his epistle was read out loud to the believers in Rome.

“Due penalty for their error”
This phrase is literally “the penalty that was due for their error.” The word error is more serious than a mistake; it is a wandering away. “Paul regards such homosexual activity as a perversion, a deviation, a wandering astray from what is right” (Fitzmyer).

Archibald Robertson says due refers to a debt that must be paid in full and that “nature will attend to that in their own bodies and souls.” In this case, the irony would be that nature itself will punish those who pay no attention to nature’s God. An alternative meaning would be that people receive this penalty as judgment in the afterlife. This would give an ominous new meaning to long-term debt!

If you still owe this debt you ought to make sure it is paid right away. You cannot afford such a price yourself, but Jesus Christ has already paid it in full by giving up his life for yours. His blood covers all sins. Call out to him for salvation, and these verses will be true of you as they are true of all who put their trust in Christ:

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.
So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
He forgave us all our sins “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us
with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Colossians 2:13–14)
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,
according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)