Romans 1 seems pretty clear that homosexual acts and even passions are dishonorable before the Lord.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, tothe 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.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. 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.
Pretty clear, eh?
“Not so”, says some advocates of homosexuality. They argue that Paul is not talking about homosexuality in these passages. Some argue that his point is to condemn shrine prostitution. The mention of homosexuality in this case is a reference to that which accompanied idolatrous worship. Others say that Paul is against pederasty (a homoerotic relationship between an adult male and an adolescent). In this case Paul is not condemning consensual homosexual relationships—only those which are abusive. A similar argument is often made that what Paul is condemning are those that are “unnatural”. If you are born heterosexual then it is unnatural for you to engage in homosexuality.
Often those making these arguments make it a point to read Romans 1 in the context. If we do, they say, we will clearly see that Paul’s concern is with idolatry and not with homosexuality.
And you know what? They have a point…
The context of Romans 1
In Romans 1 Paul is concerned with idolatry. His point in 1:18-23 is that God created mankind to worship and serve Him (“honor him and give him thanks”). All of creation cries out that this is the case. Humanity in response has suppressed the cry of creation and in rebellion we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…” We have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator”.
Paul’s point is that creation was not formed to worship creation. We are not made to worship and serve the like. Idolatry does just this, it makes us worship things that are creaturely, just like ourselves. God designed us to worship that which is outside ourselves. Idolatry causes us to essentially worship a mirror.
So those who teach that this passage is not fundamentally about condemning homosexuality are correct. Paul’s main point is not about homosexuality. It is about the consequences of idolatry. But that doesn’t meant that it has nothing to say about homosexuality.
So why then does Paul mention homosexuality in Romans 1?
He uses homosexuality because it is fitting illustration for idolatry. In answering this question, Tom Schreiner says, “Probably because it functions as the best illustration of that which is unnatural in the sexual sphere”. In other words, Paul focuses on homosexuality because it is a tremendous illustration of his point.
Sex is meant to be enjoyed with one different than ourselves. This is why Paul goes back to the creation narrative and uses thelys (female) and arsen (male) instead of the typical gyne (female) and aner (male). He uses the same words in the creation account of the LXX (Septuagint). God made them male and female. Different. Hetero. Other.
Homosexuality is the natural progression of idolatry. It is a picture of our idolatrous exchange of worshipping the Other and choosing to worship that which looks just like us. When we’ve bought the lie that creature is more important than the Creator, such a view is the result. Homosexuality is the natural progression of thinking that is unnatural.
Why those other arguments do not work
Those who teach that Romans 1 has nothing to do with homosexuality encourage us to read the context. I would advise another plan. Reading the context actually shows why the arguments of pederasty, shrine prostitution, and other things does not work. It would make Paul’s argument pointless because it severs the tie with the root of idolatry; namely, the worship of sameness instead of the Other.
It’s also helpful for us to mention that there are things in verses 28-32 that I am guilty of. I too was an idolater. That leaves me in the same boat as the homosexual. But I’m willing to say that even though envy, slander, gossip, boastfulness, and the like sometimes feel very natural they are to be opposed and battled with all the power of Christ.
Here comes a non politically correct statement. According to Romans 1, homosexual acts and passions are dishonorable to the Lord. Therefore, just as I do with my sin, those who struggle with this particular sin must fight it through the power of the gospel. They are correct this passage isn’t solely about homosexuality. But it isn’t silent on it either. It is about the idolatry of humanity and all of it’s damning effects.
We aren’t healed by denying our presence in that list. We are healed by acknowledging our guilt and fleeing to Christ for righteousness.