Have We Misunderstood Romans 1:26–27? 6 Interpretations Say ‘Yes’
Eschewing recycled responses and easy answers, his new book People to Be Loved freshly engages the passages and people behind the issue in a way that respects both, while challenging Christians across the spectrum.
“Are we sure we’ve understood what the Bible really says about same-sex relations?” (15) Sprinkle asks. Especially the crucial Romans 1 passage? Have we misunderstood it?
Six views say, ‘Yes’!
We’ve briefly outlined and engaged them below to bring clarity and offer a way forward.
1) Heterosexuals Having Homosexual Sex
Though largely abandoned, some interpret Romans 1 as addressing people born with a heterosexual orientation acting contrary to their nature. In other words, straight people having gay sex.
This view suffers by interpreting para physin to mean “against one’s personal (sexual) nature.” Sprinkle explains this definition “isn’t how the phrase is used by other [Greco-Roman] writers, and it almost certainly does not mean that here in Romans 1.” (188)
2) Same-Sex Relations Weren’t Sinful, Only Impure
Others argue Paul only assumed that homosexual relations violated Jewish purity laws, but not God’s standards, because he used akatharsis in Romans 1:27 to describe same-sex eroticism.
Sprinkle argues, however, that Paul uses “impurity” elsewhere in his letters “as a synonym for sinful behavior, not just behavior that violates certain Jewish purity laws.” (188)
3) Paul Isn’t Condemning All Forms of Gay Sex
Robin Scroggs asserts that since Paul only knew of one form of homosexual practice, pederasty, this must be what he was critiquing in Romans 1. Thus, his critique is irrelevant for our modern question of monogamous, consensual, same-sex marriage.
Sprinkle points out three things: Paul doesn’t use the Greek words widely used to describe pederasty in Romans 1; Paul blames both partners for the immorality; and pederasty didn’t exist among women.
4) Paul Mimics Jewish Critique to Later Rebuke
Another view argues Paul is agreeing with his Jewish interlocutor in Romans 1:18–32 so he can turn around and rebuke him in Romans 2. Sprinkle believes this view is rhetorically accurate, “but it’s a false dichotomy. Paul’s rhetorical twist does not mean that he is saying things he does not actually believe in Romans 1.” (190)
5) Paul Condemns All Forms of Same-Sex Relations
This recent view grants that Paul condemned all forms of same-sex relations—which is why we need to move beyond Paul today. It rests on a number of assumptions about Paul’s view of women and our modern insights into same-sex relations.
Not only does this approach assume a view of Scripture Sprinkle rejects. It also raises two questions: If we embrace this argument, what else of Paul’s letters should we jettison? How much do we actually know and understand about same-sex orientation?
6) Paul Was Critiquing Excessive Lust
Sprinkle believes this is the strongest affirming interpretation of Romans 1:26–27. It holds that Paul isn’t critiquing all same-sex relations, only those resulting from excessive lust and uncontrollable passions. They argue many Greco-Roman writers believed that same-sex eroticism arose out of excessive lust, and Paul was one of them. Therefore, this passage doesn’t apply to loving, consensual, nonlustful same-sex marriages—which is what affirming Christians argue for today.
Sprinkle rejects this view for 4 reasons:
- “While many ancient writers believed that same-sex relations were the result of excessive lust, other writers did not.” (98)
- “The excessive-lust view doesn’t work for Paul’s critique of female same-sex relations in Romans 1:26.” (99)
- “Paul never said that same-sex eroticism was wrong because it resulted from excessive lust. But he does say it was ‘against nature,’ and ‘against nature’ does not mean ‘excessive lust.’” (99)
- “It is not excess desire that Paul condemns. He condemns the actions that result from sexual desire.” (100)
Have We Misunderstood Romans 1:26–27?
Sprinkle spends an entire chapter and appendix exegetically outlining three significant observations that have bearing on our question. Here are 3 considerations:
- “First, Paul considers both people involved in the sex act to be doing something wrong in Romans 1:26–27;” Paul uses language of mutuality that indicates both parties are guilty of sinning.
- That’s because it violates God’s design in creation: “Paul draws attention to God’s creation of humans into different biological sexes. Therefore, Paul considers same-sex relations to be a departure from God’s intent in creation.” (92)
- And, most importantly, that departure is para physin, “against nature.” Like other ancient writers, Paul reserved this language for same-sex erotic behavior. “It was stock language used by other Roman and Jewish writers to condemn same-sex relations.” (97–98)
Sprinkle concludes, “the nonaffirming interpretations of this passage best represent what Paul is saying.” (90)
“If I have rightly interpreted Paul,” Sprinkle concludes, “then this would logically mean that it would be more destructive, not less, to encourage people to fulfill their desire for sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex.” (102)