Shame, Honor, Homsexuality, and Romans 1

My recent posting of an interview I did with Steve Kindle a few years back generated quite a few comments.  Indeed, this is a topic that always engenders conversation, which probably stems from the fact that it is one of the political dividing points in modern society.  It divides the body politic and the faith communities.  In most of our conversations, we end up with questions of the Bible and its interpretation and application.  Those taking the conservative position on the issue, will tell you that the Bible is very clear -- Homosexuality is contrary to God's law (usually pointing to Leviticus) and contrary to nature (references to Romans 1).  I'll not take up the issue of law in this post, but the issue of nature is an intriguing one. 

In Romans 1, Paul is setting out his understanding of the human condition, suggesting that God's wrath is revealed against the wicked who suppress the truth.  He is arguing that the Gentile world, though bereft of the revealed truth, have sufficient revelation in nature.  Unfortunately, the Gentile world has chosen to ignore this testimony, and have created idols rather than worship the true God.  As an example of this renunciation of truth, they have engaged in sexual behavior that is contrary to nature.  It is this passage, that ultimately stands as the foundation for most Christian opposition to same-gender relationships. 

This is the foundational passage for some Christians who would be otherwise open to full inclusion of homosexuals into the church (this is the view of Richard B. Hays).

24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.  (Romans 1:24-27 NRSV).
The question is, what does Paul mean here?  And is this passage the key to our understanding of this issue? 

One of the problems that faces us today, is that there is this gulf of cultural experience that separates us from the 1st century.  What was considered "natural" 2000 years ago may not be so now, or at least what was contrary to nature was different.  In this regard, I appreciate the thoughts of James McGrath.  James is a bible scholar and knows his way around the text better than I do.  He makes this point about shame and honor as it relates to the issue of same gender relationships.  His interpretation makes a lot of sense to me.  He writes:

If we look carefully at the language Paul uses, we notice that the terminology Paul uses for such intercourse not that of sin but that of shame and dishonor. Looking at the background to this language may help us understand why Paul could think of homosexuality as a punishment from God. Paul's viewpoint appears to be that homosexual intercourse is shameful and contrary to nature, and it is important to look to Paul's ancient historical-cultural context in determining what such language would mean to him and his readers. Our idea of "natural" intercourse more often has to do with "tab A fitting into slot B." In Paul's time, the thinking about nature, gender and intercourse was that men are by nature active and women by nature passive. What would seemed shameful in this ancient honor-shame cultural context was the transgressing of such gender roles, with men demeaning themselves by taking the passive female role, and conversely women taking on the active role which is by nature male.

In other words, if James is correct, Paul is working off the assumption that same gender sexual activity isn't sin, but it is a sign of punishment, for they are acting shamefully and dishonoring their bodies, by doing what is contrary to nature.  What is contrary to nature is, according to this view, taking on sexual roles inappropriate to one's gender.    Beyond that, as James points out the most common form of same-gender relationship in that era was pederasty -- as is depicted in the picture I took from his site.  Note one person is bearded, the other is not.


Gary said…
"taking on sexual roles inappropriate to one's gender"

Yes. That's what it means to be homosexual. And that is why homosexuality is condemned by God. It's an abomination to God.
Steve said…
One of the most necessary tasks in biblical interpretation is weeding out those things which are purely cultural. In another passage where Paul addresses the notion of "natural," we see how his acculturated notions come to the fore and confuse us modern readers. I am referring to 1 Corinthians 11:14-15. Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?

How Paul could consider the question of who wears long and short hair a fact of nature had always escaped me. After all, I'm sure he was aware of the mane on male lions, for instance. But I recently happened upon an explanation that makes perfect sense--for Paul.

Going all the way back to Hypocrites and extending several centuries after Paul, the medical texts report the purpose of hair as follows: Hair (in Greek is the same word for testes) is a part of the reproductive process. They believed human hair was hollow, therefore creating a vacuum. In women, it functioned as a pulling source to move the male sperm into the womb where the "little guy" (homunculus) could grow to birth. If a woman came to a doctor complaining of impotence, the doctor would insert a fragrant suppository into her vagina and smell her breath the next day. If the hair was doing its job, the smell would be apparent. Therefore, long hair on a woman aided the reproductive process, and similarly retarded it in males, making the sperm recede into the man's body. Therefore, it was only "natural" for Paul and his contemporaries to see long hair on a woman as natural and long hair on a man as unnatural. This also explains why women were commanded to keep their hair covered: it was considered part of their sexual organs.

So, getting back to James McGrath, there are plenty of cultural clues that Paul was confusing nature with "the way God wants things to be." Therefore, it is not incumbent upon modern Christians to conform to premodern medical notions of hair that lead to misunderstandings of what is natural and unnatural. Romans 1 is not helpful in this regard. Would we want Paul's medical doctor to diagnose and treat our ailments today?
Ron said…
If we believe that Scripture is alive, continually being interpreted through the Holy Spirit, then we must needs be open to new revelation. Paul was always pushing the envelope beyond his day's cultural norms towards equality of all people before God. In many ways we have developed culturally beyond what Paul called for from his congregates, and I think he would be aghast at those who would try to bring us BACK based on what he wrote. Better that we follow the spirit of Paul's writings than the letter.
Steve said…
Bob, you have rightly pointed out that the key to the interpretation of Romans 1 is verse 27. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. Stoicism is not mentioned in the blog, yet it is the philosophy that informs what is behind this chapter and is evident in what James McGrath wrote. According to Stoics, and Greek thinking in general, the ideal person was one who had his (yes, his) emotions under total control. In fact, if you recall classical statuary of the male penis, they are always depicted as tiny. The reason for this is not modesty. No, they actually believed that a small penis was indicative of someone who had their sexual passions under control. A large penis meant the contrary. So the punishment Paul has in mind here is found in the body, that is to say, the body wracked with passion is its own punishment. This, taken with notions of shame and dishonor, support McGrath's thesis that sin is not the issue.
John said…
I find highly technical arguments suspicious, whether they are accurate or not - not that I am above making them. I would hope that simple principles could be established simply. Unfortunately, this area of discussion seems to be unduly complicated.

Is one particular kind of relationship a sin? Is it such a great sin that its commission will bring down eternal damnation upon sinner?

Does Scripture contain legislation answering these questions?

Is participation in a homosexual relationship sinful? Is it such a great sin that participants will incur eternal damnation by God as their just reward?

Fred Phelps would say yes to these questions and affirm that Romans 1:24-27 supports this conclusion. My reading of Romans 1:24-2:1 does not support this conclusion at all.

What progressives are in need of are simple arguments, which conservatives cannot dispute on rational grounds. That is not to say that they will continue to dispute on non-rational grounds (e.g., It's just wrong! - Nature tells me so and God told me so!)

McGrath's point is that Romans does not legislate that homosexual relationships are sinful, but that the urge to participate in homosexual conduct is a punishment from God. Paul does not call it a sin in itself but a punishment for other sins!

A number of interesting issues arise from this insight. First and foremost for me is the clear acknowledgement that homosexual urges are from God. Interesting that even Paul agrees that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice but a behavior compelled by forces beyond the person's control.

Modern biological science agrees with this analysis - homosexuality is not a choice but is a consequence of one's genes. While Paul was unaware of genetics, it's clear that he was aware that homosexuals were acting on irresistible urges and not lifestyle choices.

In reexamining the situation of homosexuality from a perspective inform by modern genetic sciences, we have to ask whether there is any justification for Paul's personal conclusion that homosexuality was such a terrible circumstance that it should be deemed a punishment. I think not. While I don't share such urges, it seems pretty clear that homosexuals can function in society, that they can be as well adjusted as heterosexuals, and that they can find as deeply sustaining relationships as heterosexuals. What then supports the idea that homosexuality is a punishment? That it is contrary to nature? How can that be when the homosexual urge itself is from nature? That it makes some people different? I think it is obvious where this argument leads.

While there are probably many other arguments which could be marshaled, I have to ask the anti-gay Christian: If you accept Paul's interpretation that it is a punishment, do you think it wise to counsel folks who are being punished by God with homosexual urges to resist the punishment? If it is from God can it be resisted? Is it not a sin to resist what God has willed?

Finally, I read through the rest of Romans 1 and into Romans 2 only to discover that the real thrust of Paul's argument was not to attack homosexuality (which he does not do in any event) but to attack those who judge others and challenge other's sins while the one doing the judging continues to live in sin, especially the sin of arrogance!! Romans 2:1 reads: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."

Those "same things" are set forth in vv 29-31: "29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, MALICE. Full of envy, murder, STRIFE, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, HAUGHTY, BOASTFUL, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, HEARTLESS, RUTHLESS."

The capitalized words identify the many sins committed by those who judge

Gary said…

You missed it completely. Your theology is perverted. Each and every time what we now call homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible it is condemned. No exceptions. There is not one word in Scripture endorsing homosex.
There is no doubt that God considers homosexuality to be a sin. And there is also no doubt, based on Scripture, that unrepenant sinners will suffer damnation.
Arielle Roper said…


Email: April 23, 2010

Phone: 541.549.1139

April 28th Fear To Freedom Day

Renewed Hope, Restored Self-worth and Redeemed Joy For Victims

Sisters, Oregon, April 23, 2010-Burdened for so many women that have been crushed with fear from an experience with sexual assault, Rosemary Trible has been speaking across the country about her own dark journey with fear that began in December of 1975. That was when she was violently raped at gunpoint after hosting a television talk show on sexual assault in Richmond, Virginia. In her new book Fear To Freedom (VMI Publishers, February 1, 2010), she shares her passion to walk alongside victims encouraging them that whatever has broken their hearts – whatever has stolen their joy - that the cycle of fear can be broken and that their lost joy can be found again.

As April is recognized as sexual assault month, we would like to make April 28th, Fear to Freedom Day. Rosemary, the wife of former Congressman and Senator Paul Trible (R-VA) says, “I believe we do not have to be trapped by the grip of fear but can find freedom to move from victim to victory. Like bacteria that stays in the dark only grows, but dies when it is brought to the light, it's time to bring this terrible crime into the light and empower women to stand up for the voices of many who have kept this secret deep in their hearts.”

The statistics are frightening – 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and 1 in 33 men. Half of those will be 18 years old or younger, and college age women are four times more likely to be raped. However, less then 6% of rapist ever spend a day in jail! Trible states, “I have come to believe, a man who rapes you does not want to destroy you for a day, but destroy you for a lifetime. They place that dagger of fear deep in your heart that continues to haunt you long after the physical pain is gone.”

Calling on our nation, Rosemary asks us to unite on April 28th in saying enough is enough. It is time to offer renewed hope, restored self-worth and redeemed joy for victims. We can uphold one another so that this terrible brokenness does not leave a person in depression, a loss of self-esteem and fear. Rosemary closes by saying, “He (the rapist) wins if we let a sexual assault destroy our lives, but each day we live with joy in our lives, we win. I hope you will join me in “taking back the joy” that has been stolen and help victims to begin their journey from fear to forgiveness to freedom!”


Please help make a difference with us and other groups (such as Young Life, and RAINN-Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) by broadcasting this message or by posting this to a blog on April 28th. We are hoping to gather 100 Fear to Freedom stories of people who have overcome being sexually assaulted and are willing to share with others the healing they received to empower others so that they too can break the chains of fear. This can be done anonymously if you prefer by just giving a first name and city (Jane in Dallas, Texas) and entering your story on the Facebook Fan Page -Fear To Freedom. Also a group has committed to pray for each of these individuals for the month of May.

To learn more about Rosemary Trible visit her website at

To book Rosemary for an interview please contact Rhonda Funk at Bring It On! Communications Phone: 541.549.1139 or Email to:
John said…

Neither God nor Scripture endorse driving cars either. That doesn't make the act sinful.

It appears that you missed Paul's point - JUDGING is a sin and it brings its own condemnation.

Gary said…

If your understanding of Scripture were correct(which it isn't) then YOU committed the same sin you judged me to have committed.
John said…

I didn't think I accused you or anyone in particular of the sin of judging - though I did suggest that those who judge homosexuals have sinned.

John said…

I would be interested in knowing how McGrath responds to 1 Cor 6:9?

Gary said…

Then I just suggested that those who practice homosexuality have sinned.
John said…

David Mc said…
So, Paul was a bad guy, then a perfect guy? He's infallible like the pope? He outranks and fills in for what Jesus lacked? Just wondering. Weren't we warned of following some of his teachings? If the spirit leads me to a different understanding, I have no choice but to understand.
Anonymous said…
My cop out here is what an idea my pastor has been discussing lately. The law points us to the need for a Savior. When we go before Jesus, we leave the law outside the door and do "business with God". What this means is punishment and judgement is left outside and we plead to a Savior for Grace and Mercy.

This issue I feel is more and more simply debating the law. I agree with John, this post simply tries another cut with science, relative culture, or "I think..." Fact is.. a scientist didn't write it, culture comments are often anecdotal vs fully reseached, and all thats left is an opinion.

Do I think homosexually is sinful? Yes.. but its due to my more literal interpretation leaning of scripture. I have to go by what is says vs I think it could mean... HOWEVER, internet pornography is just as rampant in the church today and I would argue it falls under all the same categories as homosexuality. I also believe we ALL sin and fall short of the glory of God, and thus need a savior. I may not be a homosexual, but I have lustful thoughts.. I am greedy, etc.

Bottom line is.. there is not a ranking system of sin, like we all want there to be. (I didn't kill anyone, etc) If you miss on one, you miss it all!! THAT is why we need a Savior in Jesus!

Anonymous said…
"taking on sexual roles inappropriate to ones NATURE"

Put this way, our pressure on true homosexuals to conform to heterosexual nature really sets US up as sinners.

There were/ are plenty of persons pressured into unnatural sexual relationships. It has caused a lot of hurt and broken families. Shame cast on those trying to live their natural longings has caused as much. I prefer not to risk causing someone pain while I have been blessed with a nature acceptable to society. There aren't many celibate homosexuals casting shame on their like. Why should we?
Obie Holmen said…
Of the many cultural influences that may have contributed to Paul's assumptions, I wonder about the Stoic university in Tarsus. I recently read a post (can't find a link now) that suggested homosexual behavior was understood in the first century as an excess of passion -- oversexed if you will. This would seem to be consistent with the Stoic notion that dispassionate rationalism is the ideal rather than impassioned emotionalism.

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