Why Focus on Romans?
We've already looked at some of the challenges to studying homosexuality in the bible. But among the challenging passages, Romans is probably the most challenging of them all.
Leviticus is Easy(ish)
In Leviticus there are two condemnations of male-male sexual acts (18:22,29 and 20:13). There is very little context or explanation to those rules (or to any of the other rules listed in Leviticus which includes kosher laws, prohibitions against getting tattoos, and rules on how to treat slaves). So you can make a case (as many do) for throwing out all of Leviticus as normative for Christian living since large chunks of it have already been thrown out (we no longer keep kosher, practice religious circumcision, or prohibit tattoos).
I propose that such a reading of Leviticus is shallow and misses the point of its inclusion in the bible, but that's for a later post. I think it's important for us to know what the laws of the Israelites were, but also to know why they had such laws. The three possible explanations are: 1) God made up some random rules to test the obedience of the Israelites; 2) God gave specific rules to a specific people for a specific time which are applications of eternal, enduring principles; or 3) God gave eternal, enduring rules for all time.
Paul, in Galatians 3 points out that the law was given to convict people of the sin that was already going on and to point to the promise of relationship with God that already existed. That automatically rules out options 1 and 3 from above. If the law was given to reveal sin that already existed, then the rules could not have been random, and if the law was given to reveal sin, yet the law was no longer necessary after Jesus, then the law cannot contain eternal rules.
So, the law (i.e. Leviticus) was given to show how the Israelites were sinning (that is violating the eternal principles of God) within their specific context, which included instructions about food, circumcision, and tattoos. We don't know exactly what was going on around them due to a dearth of archaeological evidence, but we do know that God was (and is) opposed to the worship of idols. It's the first commandment (Exodus 20:3), and the Greatest Command (Matt. 22:34-40). And we do know that some of the idol worship in Canaan involved what they called "sacred marriage" which required priests and priestesses to have sex to compel the good will of the gods. It is likely that many of the prohibitions in Leviticus are related to unknown or little-known religious practices of the Canaanites, including the prohibitions against male-male sex acts.
Corinthians and Colossians are Easy(ish) Too
In both mentions of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul uses an invented Greek word that modern translators render as "homosexuality" or "homosexual acts." That word is a compound word of the two Greek words used in Leviticus to refer to male-male sex acts. Since Paul was well-schooled in the Hebrew scriptures, it makes sense that his understanding of that specific sin would be inextricably tied to Leviticus. And, since both Corinth and Ephesus were centers for idol worship in the first century, it makes sense that Paul would refer back to idolatry practices in his list of sins. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul goes from his general list of sins to the specific sin of having sex with a prostitute (6:12-20), which, in Corinth, likely meant temple prostitution.
Whether or not Paul had temple prostitution in mind as he wrote 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, it is clear that he had Leviticus in mind, which was given in response to the historical context of the Israelites in Canaan, which likely referred to idol worship through acts like male-male sex and tattoos.
Leaving RomansSo if the two passages in Leviticus are related to the two non-Romans passages in the New Testament, then the same explanation and interpretation for Leviticus applies to them all. It is difficult, at best, to argue that Leviticus offers instructions for all people for all time, especially since the bible itself rules out at least some of the Levitical law (kosher rules and the sacrificial system).
But Romans doesn't call back to Leviticus. It doesn't even call back to the Hebrew scriptures. Rather, Romans 1 calls back to creation and to its self-evident revelation about the attributes of God that leave people without an excuse (Rom. 1:18-20). So, for Paul, there is something different about Romans chapter 1 and its reference to homosexual acts as a sin (both male and female) requires a much more thorough look.
What Romans 1 Might Mean
Similar to how Leviticus can be viewed as arbitrary laws, eternal rules, or culturally specific instructions, Romans can be viewed in the same way. In my opinion, attempting to divorce scripture from the culture into which it was written is tantamount to arbitrarily deciding on what the passages mean. If we don't look at the culture into which the bible was written, we miss hugely important points about its message, and we reduce the interpretive framework to our own reactions to the text in isolation.
The Church in Rome
As Ty pointed out, the Roman church to which Paul wrote had a problem: they didn't know how to play well together. There were Gentile Christians who had developed their faith without Jewish Christians there (because Emperor Claudius kicked all of the Jews out of the city; Acts 18:2). But when the exile of the Jews from Rome was over, the Jewish Christians found a Gentile church that they were not comfortable with at all. Gone were the practices of avoiding food sacrificed to idols and celebrating Jewish holidays (at least, Rom. 14). So the Jewish Christians were uncomfortable and caused a fuss. The letter of Romans is Paul's response to that issue, namely, answering how people are saved in Christ.
No One is Righteous
Before we start to look at where the interpretations vary, we should look at where they are consistent. There is no doubt that Romans 1-3 establishes one, simple fact: no one is righteous on their own merit (Rom. 3:19-31). Paul then goes on, through the rest of Romans, to establish how Jesus has united both Gentile and Jew in his church (and how a united church ought to treat one another).
Romans 3 states that all have sinned, both those under the law (code for the Jews) and those not under the law (code for the Gentiles). Romans 2 points out the the Jewish Christians in Rome that their confidence in the law, and their understanding of the law, is insufficient to save them from their own sins (2:23). And Romans 1, after the introduction section, points out how Gentile Christians are not righteous based on their own merits (1:32).
First, many people think that Paul is using his own thoughts to condemn both the Gentiles (1:18-32) and the Jews (2:17-29). So the condemnation of male-male sex and female-female sex (1:26-27) reflects Paul's condemnation of those acts and, as an inspired writer of the bible, also reflects God's condemnation. This view is a more traditional and literal reading of scripture and at the heart of much of the church's opposition to homosexual acts and to the inclusion of homosexual Christians.
Ty suggested that Paul was not giving his own thoughts (in 1:18-32), but quoting the words of the Jewish Christians in Rome who were opposing the Gentiles there. The rhetorical device would be to start with something that the audience agreed with, and then use it to point out their own shortcomings (not dissimilar from the way the prophet Nathan confronted King David, 2 Sam. 12). The agreement of Paul with the passage is immaterial, in this view, to the effect of the passage on his audience, namely personal conviction.
Some, like John Boswell, have suggested that the homosexuality in view in Romans 1 is not committed, adult sex, rather same-sex acts by those who are heterosexual -- which would be against nature. It was common for men, especially men in positions of power, to physically humiliate other men as a means of subjugation (e.g. soldiers raping a male prisoner), not because of any physical attraction, but because it would demean and humiliate. This view, however, does not adequately explain the prohibition against female same-sex acts which are in view in Romans 1.
Another view, held by Robin Scroggs, is that Paul was not condemning committed, monogamous, adult same-sex relationships, but the Hellenistic practice of pederasty where an adult man would take on a boy as a lover. But that also does not explain the female-female sex referred to by Paul.
Still another view, held by Victor Paul Furnish, is that the idea of homosexuality as an orientation was inconceivable to Paul since it has only come to light in the Western world during the last century. Since Paul could not have had in mind those who know that they were born with homosexual desires, it is impossible, according to this interpretation, that Paul could be condemning those acting on such desires. Those who oppose this view, like Kevin DeYoung, assert that the ancient world knew not only about pederasty, and exploitive same-sex acts, but also about committed, long-term, adult relationships.
It is also important to note that the heart of the passage (1:18-32) is a condemnation of idolatry as the source of all of the sinfulness (Schreiner, pg. 90ff), especially sexual immorality, but also including every other type of immorality (Rom. 1:29-31). While Romans 1 has same-sex relations as a prime example in this list of sins, it is still just one item in a list of sins (similar to 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1).
As promised, these interpretations aren't given to try to convince you one way or the other, but to give you the tools to convince yourself of what you think is right. So, in a sense, this isn't a conclusion where I'm going to tell you the "right" answer, but it's the end of this post so you can begin to work on what you think the right answer is.
I'll leave you with this:
Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things (Rom. 2:1).The point of Romans 1:18-32, according to Paul in Romans 2:1, is that none of us have an excuse when we judge another because we "practice the same things." We may not be practicing homosexuality or idolatry or murder or greed (all in Paul's list), but we are practicing the root of sin which is denying God's righteousness and claiming that we can, through our works, attain righteousness on our own merit. We're all guilt of that when we judge the sinfulness of others without admitting fully to our own.
Which of the interpretations of Romans 1 are most compelling for you? Which are easiest to dismiss? Why?
If you were writing Romans 1 today, with the purpose of uniting divided Christians, what examples would you use? Which groups do you think are most divided?