Sexuality and Nature in Romans 1:26-27 (Stott)

 Romans 1:26-27 is a very deep text that talks about the darkness and destructiveness of depravity.  In the context of these verses, Paul is discussing how the rejection of God leads to all sorts of misery.  For example, rejecting God affects the mind and morals in very bad ways (v 18, 21).  Rejection of God necessarily leads to idolatry (v 23, 25).  Rejection of God can also result in God giving a person over to his or her sins – judicially withdrawing his restraint and letting them have the depraved lusts of their hearts (v 24).  Rejecting God has many dire and dark consequences: sometimes God punishes sin with sin.

Back to Romans 1:26-27.  In these verses Paul says that one result of God giving a person over to his or her sinful lusts is that they exchange natural sexual relations with unnatural ones: men lust after men and women lust after women.  John Stott has some helpful comments on these verses:

Verses 26–27 are a crucial text in the contemporary debate about homosexuality. The traditional interpretation, that they describe and condemn all homosexual behaviour, is being challenged by the gay lobby. Three arguments are advanced. First, it is claimed that the passage is irrelevant, on the ground that its purpose is neither to teach sexual ethics, nor to expose vice, but rather to portray the outworking of God’s wrath. This is true. But if a certain sexual conduct is to be seen as the consequence of God’s wrath, it must be displeasing to him. Secondly, ‘the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty’ since ‘there was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world’, and that he is opposing it because of the humiliation and exploitation experienced by the youths involved. All one can say in response to this suggestion is that the text itself contains no hint of it.

Thirdly, there is the question what Paul meant by ‘nature’. Some homosexual people are urging that their relationships cannot be described as ‘unnatural’, since they are perfectly natural to them. John Boswell has written, for example, that ‘the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual people’.  Hence Paul’s statement that they ‘abandoned’ natural relations, and ‘exchanged’ them for unnatural (26–27). Richard Hays has written a thorough exegetical rebuttal of this interpretation of Romans 1, however. He provides ample contemporary evidence that the opposition of ‘natural’ (kata physin) and ‘unnatural’ (para physin) was ‘very frequently used … as a way of distinguishing between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour’. Besides, differentiating between sexual orientation and sexual practice is a modern concept; ‘to suggest that Paul intends to condemn homosexual acts only when they are committed by persons who are constitutionally heterosexual is to introduce a distinction entirely foreign to Paul’s thought-world’, in fact a complete anachronism.

So then, we have no liberty to interpret the noun ‘nature’ as meaning ‘my’ nature, or the adjective ‘natural’ as meaning ‘what seems natural to me’. On the contrary, physis (‘natural’) means God’s created order. To act ‘against nature’ means to violate the order which God has established, whereas to act ‘according to nature’ means to behave ‘in accordance with the intention of the Creator’. Moreover, the intention of the Creator means his original intention. What this was Genesis tells us and Jesus confirmed: ‘At the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one.’ Then Jesus added his personal endorsement and deduction: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’

In other words, 1) God created humankind male and female; 2) God instituted marriage as a heterosexual union; and 3) what God has thus united, we have no liberty to separate. This threefold action of God established that the only context which he intends for the ‘one flesh’ experience is heterosexual monogamy, and that a homosexual partnership (however loving and committed it may claim to be) is ‘against nature’ and can never be regarded as a legitimate alternative to marriage.

 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 77–78.

Shane Lems
Hammon, WI, 54015

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