God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How Not To Talk About Homosexuality in Romans 1

A New York Times article yesterday titled “Christians Debate Verses From Bible on Homosexuality” presents, among other things, two views of what Paul says about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27. Unfortunately, both positions depend on translation inaccuracies.

Romans 1:26-27

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Caleb Kaltenbach, the lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA, claims: “The word that Paul uses for `natural’ is not referring to what is natural to a specific person, but rather what is natural in light of God’s intent for the sexual design of humanity.” In other words, he says, no one can be naturally homosexual.

Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, counters: “While Paul labels same-sex behavior `unnatural,’ he uses the same word to criticize long hair in men in 1 Corinthians 11:14, which most Christians read as a synonym for `unconventional.'” That is, it’s not that homosexuality is unnatural, but rather, like hair styles, a matter of conventionality.

I can’t find linguistic support for either view.

As issue is the Greek word fusis (“nature”) and its adjectival cousin fusikos (“natural”). According to Romans 1:26, “women exchanged natural [fusikos] intercourse for that which is against nature [fusis].” Pastor Kaltenbach thinks this refers not an individual’s nature but rather to a universal divine intent. Mr. Vines thinks this refers to conventionality.

Galatians 2:15 suggests that Pastor Kaltenbach is wrong about the word fusis. There, Paul writes that “we are Jews by nature [fusis]” even though (2:16) “we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Recognizing the obvious role of fusis in this passage, most translations render the text “we are Jews by birth.” In this case, fusis means precisely “that which is natural for a specific person,” namely, the person born a Jew. If Pastor Kaltenbach were right, Galatians 2:15 would mean that the new Christians were going against “what is natural in light of God’s intent for … humanity.”

We see that, contrary to Pastor Kaltenbach’s claim, fusis can in fact refer to what is natural to a specific person.

Turing to Mr. Vines’s position, 1 Corinthians 11:14 does use the word fusis, in the context of men growing their hair long, but the long hair isn’t against nature. Rather, the long hair is “degrading,” a quality conveyed by a different Greek word, atimia. (In other contexts, atimia ranges in meaning from “disgraceful” to “ordinary.” Romans 1:26 uses this word to describe some lusts as “shameful.”) That is, the role of “nature” here is not to describe the long hair. Rather, it’s “nature” that teaches that men’s long hair is atimia. It’s not quite true, in other words, that “Paul uses the same word [fusis] to criticize long hair in men.”

We see that even though Romans 1:26-27 shares vocabulary with 1 Corinthians 11:14, the long hair on men in 1 Corinthians is not parallel with the unnatural intercourse in Romans 1.

More generally, the linguistic nuances in Romans 1 offer little insight into whether Paul was speaking out against homosexuality. All we really know is that Paul was of the belief that there are two kids of sex, natural and unnatural. He doesn’t say whether homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, admits of both categories.

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June 9, 2015 - Posted by | translation applications, translation practice | , , , , , , ,

33 Comments »

  1. In the Romans 1:26-27 passage cited, clearly Paul is condemning the behavior of same-sex intimacy. “Penalty”, “perversion”, and “God gave them over” leave nothing to ambiguity as to Paul’s intent. I’m not sure how Paul would have had to word this in order to be understood as “speaking out” against homosexuality.

    Comment by Relentless | June 9, 2015 | Reply

    • Start with a parallel case that’s less emotionally charged, say: “I traded in my blue car for an awful green one.” There are two ways to understand this:

      1. Green is an awful color; or

      2. Green comes in two varieties — good and bad — and even though this green is awful, some other shades are great.

      Similarly, regarding “men committed indecent acts with other men,” there are two possibilities (if we assume, as is fairly obvious from the context, that the “acts” here refer to sex). Either:

      1. Male homosexual sex is indecent; or

      2. Like heterosexual sex, homosexual sex comes in two varieties: decent and indecent.

      Or to look at it differently, Paul is obviously claiming that some homosexual sex is indecent. He doesn’t take a position on whether all homosexual sex is.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 9, 2015 | Reply

      • Thanks for the quick response. 🙂 But I have to disagree with the analogy, which I can assure you is not necessary since emotion is not being considered on my part. My interest is purely in determining what Paul’s likely intent is in this passage.

        The comment I made before really has nothing to do with the nuances of the words but the section as a whole. Paul is portraying same-sex intimacy in a very bad light. First Paul states that God “handed them over to disgusting passions”, and then what follows are examples of those disgusting passions. And in those examples, Paul does not give any hint that there can be such a thing as natural or non-disgusting same-sex intimacy. That is, it’s an argument from silence to allow that possibility.

        As my own offering of an analogy, let’s look at the verses following this passage. There Paul lists many other evils, but no one would think of arguing that there might be some good kinds of envy, gossip, or murder. It seems to me that the fallacy of “special pleading” is being used for homosexuality, then. In other words, if we wouldn’t be confused about Paul’s meaning concerning greed or murder, why would we be confused about his meaning concerning homosexuality? It is part of the same discussion of what’s wrong with the world, and I see nothing else in the passage that could be ambiguous.

        To summarize, Rom. 1 is a list of things that are all bad, not a list of things that can be either bad or good.

        Comment by Relentless | June 9, 2015

  2. Couldn’t agree more with relentless. It has become too easy to create ambiguity where context makes something rather plain. Why would Paul refer to homosexuality at all here if he was only calling out a particular form of it or practice within it? God isn’t saying that.

    Comment by onevision83 | June 9, 2015 | Reply

  3. I love this GREAT DEBATE…. Nature vs. Choice.

    Comment by Mel Tomlinson | June 10, 2015 | Reply

  4. Only inerrantists would deliberately try to make a bible passage ambiguous in this way. I mean, my response to LGBTQ-supportive Christians who bring up these arguments is usually something like what if you’re wrong about Romans 1? What if Paul really did condemn homosexual behaviour carte blanche? Would that change everything? Probably not. Maybe the way forward is to stop interpreting the bible as a fundamentalist, because even if you can pull off these hermeneutical gymnastics and convince people that a text like Romans, written by a single man who suggested people not marry, supports homosexual relationships, you still have to reckon with a bible where God commanded the Israelites to kill every man woman and child in Jericho. Maybe inerrancy isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be?

    I mean, I get it. People who have these arguments grew up in an inerrantist evangelical culture and only know one way of interacting with scripture (bible says it, I believe it, that settles it) so when the bible contradicts their lived experience they have to cast doubt on the scripture to make it say what it probably doesn’t. I get it, but there are better ways.

    Comment by Tyler | June 10, 2015 | Reply

    • I think that cuts both ways. Many people I’ve met who use the Bible to condemn homosexuality aren’t willing to explore the evidence about the meaning of the text. (A couple years ago I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post — “Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation” — in which I argued, based on evidence in my And God Said, that Song of Solomon presents of model of equality in a romantic relationship. The evidence is overwhelming, but a group of Southern Baptists nonetheless took a Sunday to preach against me.)

      More generally, I don’t think it’s possible to honestly agree or disagree with the Bible without first exploring its meaning honestly. (And I think that this holds true whether people think the Bible is God’s word or a mere curiosity. One of my ongoing frustrations is people who say they don’t have to read the Bible to know that it doesn’t contain anything worth while.)

      Comment by Joel H. | June 10, 2015 | Reply

  5. This one doesn’t really need a linguistic analysis. We don’t know what Paul actually saw, but let’s use a bit of imagination. On the one hand, if a man were to see his wife rubbing her naked body against another naked man, such a sight would constitute an act of adultery in anyone’s language. No one would question whether she was actually “penetrated” or not – it would just be assumed. On the other hand, when Paul spoke about “men with men” – he wasn’t necessarily portraying some form of penetration between the two. He probably just had this image in his mind (imagined or otherwise) of two naked men getting a bit too close. It sounds like they were a bit too close as it says, they “burned in their desire toward one another”. In other words, the argument made for/against “penetration” is a red herring.

    Comment by Robert Kan | June 10, 2015 | Reply

    • I agree that the linguistic evidence doesn’t offer much in the way of certainty, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it. Knowing that the text is ambiguous is helpful, even if (perhaps) disappointing — particularly with so many people claiming that they have unearthed new linguistic evidence that points definitively in one direction or another, as in the NYT article.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 10, 2015 | Reply

      • While the word itself may have ambiguity in isolation, it certainly has none in this context. It’s much the same situation as that for “authentein”, which only ever had a bad connotation in secular literature, but which some insist must include a possible positive meaning when Paul used it to allegedly restrict women from teaching. Just as some seem bent on shoehorning a positive meaning there, so also do some seem bent on shoehorning a positive meaning here re. homosexuality.

        Comment by Relentless | June 10, 2015

  6. Here’s what it boils down to, in my opinion:
    — there is no example of a good homosexual relationship anywhere in scripture
    — there is no condemnation of heterosexuals doing “that which is unnatural”
    — Paul stated exactly what he meant: men lying with men, and women lying with women
    — in 1 Cor. 6:9-11 (see also 1 Tim. 1:9-10) Paul lists homosexuality in a list of things the people had once been but were now cleansed from. (I understand some hold that Paul’s word “arsenokoitais” meant a particular kind of homosexuality, but this is begging the question.)
    — the mere possibility of some doubt upon the meaning of a word does not overturn context
    — If the Bible is malleable enough to throw context away, there’s no point in debating its content
    — The charge of having an agenda to oppose homosexuality is no more true than the charge of having an agenda to accept it; that is, there is easily as much evidence that some are bent on getting it accepted, as that some are bent on getting it rejected
    — Love does not mean accepting and tolerating any and every behavior society deems normal and healthy, and at times the Christian community seems to have lower morals than society
    — see 1 Cor. 5, where Paul showed no concern over whether the couple were faithful and loving; not even heteros can have just anyone they want, such that it isn’t just homosexuals who are denied that freedom

    And as I mentioned before, looking at Paul’s list of bad things, and picking only one item for nuances allowing certain types of that behavior, is the fallacy of special pleading and begging the question. The burden of proof for acceptance of some forms of homosexual practice lies with its supporters, and no such proof can be derived from scripture.

    Comment by Relentless | June 10, 2015 | Reply

  7. Relentless:

    The comment I made before really has nothing to do with the nuances of the words but the section as a whole. Paul is portraying same-sex intimacy in a very bad light.

    It’s clear that Paul is portraying same-sex intimacy as unnatural for some people, in particular, for those who start with heterosexuality (and “exchange” it for homosexuality). This doesn’t mean that it’s against everyone’s nature.

    By comparison, Paul refers to “deceit” in verse 28. Do you think that deceit is always evil? What about the father using deceit to smuggle his daughter out of a war zone? Do you think Paul condemns such a parent?

    Comment by Joel H. | June 10, 2015 | Reply

    • Joel, I just don’t see “for some people” in the context there. Would Paul also say that “for some people” heterosexuality is unnatural? Again, the burden of proof is on the addition of “for some people”.

      As for deceit, you provided an example where it can have a good meaning, and such can even be found in scripture (e.g. when Samuel was told to lie about his reasons for going to anoint the next king of Israel). Please provide such a good example in scripture for homosexuality.

      Comment by Relentless | June 10, 2015 | Reply

    • It is not correct to say that they exchanged their natural affections with unnatural affections. The text claims that they “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures”. And “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator”. Paul goes on to condemn a lot of behaviors after describing the source of the problem, making it clear that it was God who “gave them over to degrading passions”. It may well be that the source of the “problem” today is not the same as it was during the time of Paul, but that does not change the status of the listed behaviors. People today attribute the “problem” to genetics, but it matters little in the end. At the end of the day, it’s the behavior that Paul ultimately condemns – “those who practice such things are worthy of death”.

      Trying to find some “good” exceptions to justify a practice that would otherwise be evil is not helpful. Deceit is never good – but it may be the lesser of the two evils when push comes to shove.

      Comment by Robert Kan | June 12, 2015 | Reply

      • Robert,

        You quote Romans 1:32 (“They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die — yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.) What do you think “such things” in this verse are? And why?

        Comment by Joel H. | June 12, 2015

      • I imagine that the list is not exhaustive. But it’s still pretty impressive to say the least. “Such things” closes the loop for those who might try too hard to find a way out.

        Comment by Robert Kan | June 12, 2015

      • What I meant is this:

        The paragraphing in the NRSV suggests that the clause only refers to vss. 28-31 (and, therefore, the behaviors in 29-31). This would make sense, particularly if verses 28 and 32 bracket the list.

        Do you agree with the NRSV, or do you think verse 32 refers back even further?

        Comment by Joel H. | June 12, 2015

      • Joel, I see 26-32 as one paragraph. There is a pericope in 24-26: God handed them over, they turned the truth of God into a lie, and God turned them over. Then the rest of the chapter is spent in describing the consequences of God having turned them over. Then, in ch. 2, Paul turns on the Jews who were reading all this and patting themselves on the back. Once again, the pervasiveness of sin does not excuse it, and the thief cannot judge the homosexual without hypocrisy. The solution is not to pretend that neither theft nor homosexuality is sin, but to admit both are, and to abstain from both.

        Comment by Relentless | June 12, 2015

      • I say that verse 32 refers back for two reasons:

        1. There are connector words and phrases throughout.
        2. “every kind of wickedness, evil” captures the author’s intent.

        Comment by Robert Kan | June 12, 2015

  8. If we talk about context irt Romans 1:26-27, shouldn’t we likewise look at the context in the very next chapter? The very first verse of Chapter 2 condemns all who have been getting fired up with Paul’s preaching against all these horrible sins, such as homosexuality and murder (granting the “homosexuality” argument for sake of this point), when Paul turns their self-righteousness right around and condemns all those who so quickly agreed with his Chapter 1 arguments when he says “(t)herefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

    If the context of Romans 2 tells us anything, it should tell us that all this public condemnation of homosexuality from Romans 1:26-27 is wrong. If there is anyone to judge, it is not the believer but only the Rightful Judge. After all, the Bible has hundreds more verses pertaining to heterosexual sins than homosexual sins.

    Likewise, we constantly find poignant examples of those who preached so loudly against homosexuality getting exposed in the news each month for committing homosexual sins. Every time a hypocrite is exposed, it merely strengthens the argument for full civil rights for the LGBT community.

    Comment by Colleen Noel Harper | June 10, 2015 | Reply

    • Yes, Colleen, I think it’s exceedingly helpful to talk about the larger context. Romans 2 (“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others,” for instance) is relevant, but so too is the rest of Romans 1, as some people here have pointed out. In that larger context, it’s easier to make a case for Paul speaking out against homosexuality — a topic for a future post.

      My more narrow point now is that looking even further into the individual words in Romans 1 isn’t helpful. (By contrast, word-level linguistics becomes pretty important in the related 1 Corinthians 6.)

      Comment by Joel H. | June 12, 2015 | Reply

      • Here again, I disagree with the logic. Paul is not saying that since everybody’s a sinner, then nobody is. Rather, he’s saying that it is hypocritical to point at someone else’s sin while ignoring your own. All this time he has been going on about the Gentiles, but now he turns to the self-righteous Jews, who felt superior. And as mentioned before about 1 Cor. 5, sinners at times must judge and expel sinners. We can all agree that we all sin, but this hardly excuses our sin or absolves us of its consequences. The fact that we admit to sinning is proof that we know it’s sin. And just as false accusations and theft are still sin in spite of how many may practice them, so also homosexuality is sin regardless of how many may practice it.

        If it were true that ch. 2 means we cannot call homosexuality a sin, then it also means we can call none of the other items in Paul’s list a sin. And this of course is absurd.

        Comment by Relentless | June 12, 2015

      • A point I forgot: If someone argues that ch. 2 means we can’t call anything in ch. 1 a sin, that includes the alleged “bad” meaning of homosexual practice, such that not even that should be called “bad” anymore. This defeats the whole purpose of proposing two kinds of homosexuality and that only one is condemned.

        Comment by Relentless | June 12, 2015

      • I agree with Relentless, even though I don’t want to. I would really love for the Bible to leave open the possibility of homosexual relationships being a positive thing. But it does not, which troubles me (a topic for another time).

        As Richard Hays has observed in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman–but he also told her to “go forth and sin no more.” The Bible views homosexuality as a sin.

        The problem is that for many Christians homosexuality is a special kind of sin. In reality, Paul puts it on the same level as anger and envy. So all of the people getting angry about gay marriage in America are really the same, in Paul’s eyes, as those homosexual couples who are getting married.

        Comment by Emerson | July 23, 2015

  9. Dr. Hoffman, you seem to suggest that the level of detail in the text leaves a lot to be desired, or that your so-called “ambiguity” was due to Paul’s treatment of this as something readers in the day would have taken for granted. I see no linguistic evidence for this kind of approach.

    Comment by Robert Kan | June 11, 2015 | Reply

  10. […] Many people (on both sides of the issue) focus on what are sometimes called “clobber texts” because those who cite them are accused of trying to “clobber” gay people. Several such passages are discussed in a recent article in the New York Times. But understanding those passages can be trickier than it might seem. Joel Hoffman recently blogged about some of the difficulties in translating Romans 1. […]

    Pingback by What is Paul saying about sex in Romans 1 | JLP Pastor | June 12, 2015 | Reply

  11. Imagine if Paul left out his rant here in Romans 1. If it was anyone else who ranted on about same-sex-this and same-sex-that like Paul did in Romans, they would be mocked and scorned until the cows come home. He probably never imagined that there might be people out there who would try to “defend” him by making him appear less condemning, like when people sometimes try to defend God.

    The Bible is hard, and so is the narrow path of which it speaks.

    Comment by Robert Kan | June 12, 2015 | Reply

  12. […] How Not To Talk About Homosexuality in Romans 1 (Dr Joel Hoffman) […]

    Pingback by Controversial topics: Gathering a few favoured posts and articles on Same-sex “marriage” and the SCOTUS ruling. | Maz's Multitasking | July 7, 2015 | Reply

  13. I am convinced Paul did not write Romans 1:18-32, but rather quoted text being circulated among Jews and jewish Christians living in Rome, and that Romans 2 onward essentially is Paul’s refutation of that writing.

    Comment by Jason Engel | July 15, 2015 | Reply

  14. I know this was a year ago but I just started a study of Romans. After looking at the whole issue and all of the biblical text regarding this issue, I wonder who Paul is really talking about in this Chapter. Obviously, much of the Graeco-Roman lifestyle in this time went against either the Jewish or Christian values. More importantly, the bridge that Paul uses in verses 16-17 gets us from his greeting and into the meat of his letter and, I believe, provides the foundation for what he is attempting to declare. These 2 powerful verses use phrases like, “salvation to every one who has faith”, “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” and “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Then, even in verse 18, Paul outlines that he is speaking about those who “suppress the truth”. This word “truth” is used many times throughout the Gospel but mainly by John who makes it easy for us to exchange the word “truth” for “God”. So, in my mind, Paul is condemning the people who have given God up. That is why God has “given them over”. These people are condemned because the have given God up. Anything they do after that is irrelevant…it would all be condemned…because they have become unrighteous. This would also support the fact that at this time, in Rome, much of the gay sex was happening as part of rituals where other Gods were being worshipped (this included “images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles”). We are saved by faith in Christ Jesus…nothing else.

    Comment by John Wise | September 19, 2016 | Reply

    • Frankly, I’m convinced Paul did not write Romans 1:18-32, but is quoting a popular Jewish text that may have circulated amongst the Jewish and possibly even early Christian community living in Rome at the time. Much of the rest of his letter is a debate whereby Paul refutes that text.

      Comment by Jason Engel | September 19, 2016 | Reply

  15. If there is nothing wrong with the choice of sexual preference in the LGBTQ community–why does this phrase appear: “…received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion?”

    Comment by Beth Ann Fiedler | October 14, 2016 | Reply

  16. I agree the Unclobber series of YouTube videos on Romans 1 but as much the other passages.

    Basically, if you cheering on Paul’s rhetorical rant at the end of Chapter 1, you’re exactly who the rest of the Epistle is seeking to correct.

    Comment by MithrandirOlorin | April 19, 2017 | Reply


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