My Perspective on Romans 1

Originally published in May 2010 and published on Gather, this is a slightly modified version.

Romans 1: 25-27. These three verses from the Bible are known in some circles as “the clobber passage”. Many straight people read these verses and are “amazed at [our: the gay community’s] disregard” of the passages (from a letter written by friend of mine). “After all”, I’m sure you think, “it is so incredibly obvious”… but is it? Can we say that anything written two thousand years ago is obvious: especially if it reflects the preconceived ideas of the translators? And especially if it has caused the subjugation of a sizable segment of society. Discrimination has also been considered “obvious” from similar passages regarding women, blacks, slaves, children, etc.

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 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.

What could be easier to communicate? Sure it never actually says “homosexuals” or “gays”, but can the subject possibly be clearer? Is this not one time when that whole “context” thing is fairly irrelevant? It appears that the quality of being gay stems directly from misdirected worship and passions, which God allows to consume people. It’s simple. But what if that has not been our experience? I felt the attraction that is called homosexuality: and I know it had nothing to do with “misdirected worship” or rebellion. I’ve had my rebellious moments: and conquered a few. But my orientation was not one.

There are actually several ways to approach these verses that are not so… damning. Some have done linguistic studies on the unique structure used here, and how difficult it is to translate. I can only explain what it looks like from my perspective: and here context does become everything.

A straight man will read this and most probably be shocked by what it says. He understands implicitly natural relations with women and the contradiction that is implied by focusing those on the “wrong” gender. There is, to be sure, an enormous violation encapsulated in these words: a complete and apparent conscious decision to change one’s nature and refocus one’s energy. The contrast between natural and unnatural seems enormously important to Paul. In fact, the shameful nature of the perversion seems much more focused on the unnatural quality of the relations than on the gender being encountered. A straight man knows how hard it would be to have unnatural relations with the wrong gender: and of course that is sinful. It’s the ultimate in rebellion. To choose to do that (due to peer pressure, idolatry, demon possession, whatever) would be centrally unnatural.

Yet it is precisely here that the chink appears in the clobber passage.

Paul was writing to an audience with a very different linguistic communication pattern from what we have today; it is a “dubious hypothesis that gay/lesbian/straight existed in this Greco-Roman-Jewish context”. To Jewish men of the time, the natural relations with women would be intuitively obvious: like it is for most straight men today. But consider this from my point of view. I have been gay since before I knew what “gay” and sexuality were. I certainly made no effort to abandon natural relations, and this was long before I had any idea of what the truth of God was. There was no conscious “choice” or decision in being gay at all. My perspective was, to me, completely natural: in exactly the sense intended in the original Greek of this passage (φυσικός = “produced by nature, inborn”). This is why the argument about the reason that people are gay is so important: as far as I can tell or remember, I was born this way and it is natural… at least for me. I can speak for no-one else: but any sense of attraction toward the opposite sex has been dwarfed by that for a same-sex partner.

Paul identifies two parts to this perversion: abandoning natural relations and being inflamed with lust. The two are connected. In our own legal system, there are driving laws against having an accident and driving away: it’s called a “hit and run” incident. Driving away from something is generally not illegal: depending on what the “something” is. Driving away becomes illegal when the preceding action falls into certain categories (like, “an accident”). So it is that homosexuality (men being inflamed with lust for one another) becomes illegal (immoral) if it is a denial of a person’s natural behaviour and tendencies. But the key lies in abandoning natural relations. This was not my experience.

If anything, I did my best to deny my nature and act straight for most of my life. I did not talk about it in high school: it took me long enough to figure out my feelings (although I’d had them since childhood), and then they embarrassed me without end. I went to Bible College, was counselled for being gay and proclaimed “cured”. I feared that I wasn’t, but the best I could do was to play along. I never mentioned it when I lived in the commune; when I got engaged I explained to my fiancée that I was gay but that the two of us could “work on it”. We got married and tried for ten years: she finally left, not because we never has sex but because she felt it was obvious that I was never going to love her like a husband should. It should be noted that during this time I had not “been” with another man at all. I wasn’t even sure if I could, but my feelings were there without question.

If anything, I think that it was during this time that I was guilty of what Paul’s concerns in this passage: I was exchang[ing] natural relations for unnatural ones. I had exchanged the truth of God in me for a lie that had been repeated over and over in society and conservative churches. And, I believe that I received the due penalty for that sin: my wife could never understand my feelings (or lack thereof) so she hurt for years; I could never understand my wife’s expectations, so I also hurt; and ultimately we divorced. It was only when I met my husband that I started to understand what my wife really wanted (quite rightly) from me.

The point of this passage is not to show that homosexuality is wrong. It is to show that denying your true nature is wrong: and it is true that for the bulk of humanity that means inflaming yourself with lust for your same gender. But my experience, and that of many others in our culture, is the complete inverse of this. Part of the growing expression of Christian compassion is that we must learn to adapt to such changes in the social and cultural realm connected with the Church.

So it is that I take this passage not as the ultimate proof that being gay is wrong: but rather as testimony that we need to be ourselves. Trying to be something else is not only difficult, it’s a denial of what God has made us and in that sense is fundamentally a perversion. But it is often easier, emotionally, than living without support or without family or without community. It is something that we must all figure out for ourselves: if only our loved ones will let us do that.

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4 Responses to My Perspective on Romans 1

  1. Sam says:

    I enjoy reading your perspectives very much.

    I didn’t pursue gay relationships until I was nearly 42 because of my understanding of the Bible and my faith. I still struggle with it, but I figure God is big enough to deal with my sexuality and that his grace is sufficient for me.

    Another thing to consider is that there is substantial bias in modern English translations of the Bible. In some cases I feel it’s justified to be liberal in translation, particularly with idiomatic language in the source material, but I believe in many cases the intent of the language is skewed as a result.

    In other cases some terminology is so rare in the source text that there’s little context to translate it. I think that may be the case here in Romans 1.

    • geographer70 says:

      Exactly. And I don’t mind the translations… as long as they’re honest with those facts of uncertainty with regards to word definitions. Unfortunately, most people don’t get that. The NIV has gone back and forth on using the word “homosexual” in different passages… even though the Greeks had no apparent concept of gay people as any different from straight.

  2. Sam says:

    Ah, now that I read your earlier posts I see you’d already waxed exegetical on this passage. I appreciate your writing!

  3. Pingback: Being OK with Being Gay (2) | The Geographer's Corner

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