St. Paul and men “leaving the natural use” of women
Essay by Stephen O. Murray
March 26, 2002
“Whether or not Western people have ever heard of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, it affects their lives,” Bernadette Brooten (1996:196) wrote. It is particularly misused against lesbians and gay men by some people who call themselves “Christian” but fail to heed warnings not only from Paul in Romans but from Jesus in the Gospels and who rip two verses from the first chapter out of the context of that chapter.
In my venture into examining what the Jesus of the Gospels had to say about “homosexuality,” the answer was “nothing, but He condemned fag baiting.” (The extended analysis of Matthew 5:22 is here).
One of those believing that followers of Christ must condemn homosexuality asked “What about Romans 1:26–27?” The short answer is “What about it?” The longer answer, attempting to understand these verses within the very complex structure and syntax of Romans 1–3 follows.
The first chapters of the “Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans” have a fairly clear overall intent, though the syntax is incredibly torturous. I do not think that anyone could read even the first chapter of Romans as “being about homosexuality” (a word that did not exist until 1869 and took several more decades to reach English) or “sodomy” (a word that did not exist until the 11th century).
There is something of a consensus that the first chapter is about Gentiles, the next two about Jews. I am not totally convinced that the first chapter is about Gentiles. The force of the epistle to the Romans is that it does not matter whether one is descended from the originally Chosen People (of the First Covenant) or not. All humankind as descendants of Adam and Eve bear Original Sin. Salvation through the Gospels is available to Jew and Gentile (verse 16).
Nonetheless, it seems that Old Testament history is universalized in the first chapter. Idolatry was the recurrent occasion for the wrath of Jehovah against those violating His Covenent (the First Covenant in the view of Christians). Those who were supposed to know God but “glorified him not as God” (21) and “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (23) strikes me as heavily influenced by the golden calf and later Jewish departures from the Jehovah was supposed to be worshipped.
By A.D. 58, the Roman state religion (not at this point Christianity) had deified several emperors in addition to prescribing worhip of the pantheon of traditional Greco-Roman gods. I do not see any evidence that Paul was aiming to recall
Christians in Rome from idolatrous practices or tendencies. It seems to me that he sees the whole human species as latent idolaters—not just Romans, not just Jews, but humankind.
Verse 26 begins with the anaphora “For this cause.” To understand the verse, the first necessity is to look back to try to find the referent of “this cause.” The closest candidate, the preceding verse is those “who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.” To put it mildly, this is a very abstract category. Cranfield plausibly sees this (verse 25) as repeating the general sense of verse 23 (already quoted above), but it also could refer back further. There are nine verses between verse 15 and verse 26 that begin with a consequentialist anaphora (for, so, because, wherefore). I think that the phenomena that are consequences listed in verses 26–31 are consequences of knowing God but not glorifying him as God in verse 21. (This is not much less abstract than serving the creature more than the Creator is.)
Whether idolatry or more general fallenness (Original Sin), the rest of the first chapter of Romans is a description of consequences, not an exhortation to governments to legislate against these consequences. Far from providing a blueprint for even a Christian state, Paul had not missed the “Judge not” command of Christ (in the at-the-time yet-to-be-written Gospels). “Worthy of death” in verse 32 contrasts with “eternal life”; it is not an endorsement of capital punishment for the long list of consequences preceding it (see below). Even the slightest temptation to base the laws of any human state on Romans 1 should be dispelled by the extremely explicit reservation of judgment to God and withering condemnation of those who put themselves forward as virtuous exceptions in the very next verse:
Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest:
for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself. (2:1)
I know that my posting is very long already, and I haven’t even gotten to the verses about “leaving natural use” that I am aiming to explicate. My justification is that the context is vital. The context shows that Paul was not prescribing laws or proscribing behavior but was describing various consequences of original sin (or of idolatry). Besides “leaving natural use of women,” other consequences listed by Paul in Romans 1:28–30 are
fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boaster, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, [being] without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.
Few can be those not at some time fitting somewhere on this list. And even those who think they have avoided all of these are warned against judging others. If Romans 1 was intended as a basis for human legislation, these phenomena should all be capital crimes. (I have already argued that “worthy of death” is not an incitement to capital punishment and that Romans 1 was not intended as a basis for legislation even in a Christian state.)
OK, finally, picking up after “for this cause”: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature” (26). What does “natural use” and “against nature” mean here? Natural use” in Hellenistic Greek (which is the language of the text, as much as many of us are attached to the King James Version translation of the Latin translation of the Greek text…) meant submission of human females to sexual penetration by human males. Female-female sex is only one possible kind of “leaving natural use.” Female agency (a woman taking sexual initiative) is another. Oral and anal sex with a male partner are others. And then there is penetration by nonhumans.
In addition to coupling with inferior creatures (the downward mobility of bestiality), in the Jewish tradition in which Paul of Tarsus was steeped before his conversion, a kind of upward mobility —i.e., mating with creatures of higher status than
human beings—was conceived. Various intertestamental writings recounted “the Watchers, the sons of God who mated with human women in the time before the flood. In Hellenistic Judaism they were increasingly identified with the fallen angels and their offspring with demons” (Dynes, 117). The Testament of Naphtali 3 described the Watchers as “departing from nature’s order.” And by seducing them (female sexual agency) women are again to blame (Eve being the prototype for leading males into sin).
What makes this last possibility especially interesting is that what the men of Sodom sought to do was to have sexual relations with angels (who were Lot’s guests). Whereas the men failed, the women were believed to have succeeded.
Like most of the anaphoric references in Romans 1, the next verse begins with one that is not crystal clear, homois, “likewise.” Rather than b following a, much has been read back into a from b in this instance. If the referent of verse 26 is sex with angels, “likewise the men” in verse 27 may allude to the story of Sodom. It would certainly not be the only allusion to Old Testament stories in Romans 1!
Verse 27 has men “leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.” The 17th-century English is fairly opaque at the end. “The due wages of their deludedness” (Cranfield’s translation) reminds us that Paul is describing consequences.
I think that there is something to be said for the late John Boswell’s stress on “leaving,” that is, that Paul is describing homosexual acts committed by heterosexuals. Although these terms themselves are anachronistic, there very definitely were Hellenistic explanatory models of males whose nature was to seek penetration and males whose nature was to seek to penetrate boys. Such desires and patterns of conduct based on them had natural causes in Hellenistic sciences (I discuss these in Homosexualities, pp. 227, 257–58.) For them, as for modern gay men (as explained by modern biological science), homosexuality does not involve “leaving” their nature.
Having gone on at such length, I will skate swiftly over the debate on Paul’s acceptance of Stoic notions of “natural law.” The Catholic line has been that Paul was enunciating law(s) that should be inferred even without access to the Gospels. Protestants have rejected this. (Having been raised in an evangelical Protestant denomination, I was probably predisposed to accept Karl Barth’s rejection of the “natural law” interpretation of Romans 1.)
I will not get into how antisexual the unmarried Apostle Paul was. No one seems to read “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1) as a condemnation of heterosexuality. (Yes, I am well aware that what follows is that it is better to marry than to fornicate, as I am also aware that this rationale for marriage is not based on procreation.) Nor will I expound on the subordination of women to passivity (being “used”) in circum-Mediterranean culture.
I will conclude (at long last!) with another point adopted from Boswell in interpreting the last half of Romans 1. In that the whole list of consequences there follow from miscognition of God, Boswell contended that it does not include gay and lesbian Christians (at least as long as they don’t fall into idolatry). The First Epistle to the Corinthians 6:12 (the “me” in “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” being taken to mean any believer in Christ) as another instance in which faith in Jesus Christ is all that matters and another of Paul’s releases of believers in Christ from the Old Testament regulations. I am not arguing this here, only mentioning that some read 1 Cor. 6:12 that way.
Whether or not one accepts this line of argument (or others above about “nature”), it seems to me clear that Jesus did not condemn homosexuality. Neither Jesus nor Paul condoned it either—and to accuse me of arguing that either of them did is malicious misreading (or prejudiced nonreading!). My thesis, which I think is very sound, is that judging the sexual conduct and relationships of others is reserved by both Jesus and Paul to God’s judgment. Their followers are repeatedly warned against putting themselves in God’s place judging others (with Paul being particularly vehement at the start of Romans 2; the prototype being Matthew 7:1–5; also see Luke 8:47–50).
Throughout, I have used the King James Version of Romans. More recent translations do not appreciably unsnarl the syntactic complexity of the Greek text. Plus this is the version that self-styled “literalists” seem to believe is the original
text that Paul (or God) wrote.
(The most extensive discussion of Romans 1:26 is in Brooten, as is an extended consideration of Paul and “natural law”; for making sense of the overall structure of the Epistle to the Romans, I recommend Barth… and on the varieties of
female and male homosexualities I, of course, recommend my own 2000 book, Homosexualities.)
Barth, Karl. A Shorter Commentary on Romans. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1959.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Brooten, Bernadette J. 1996. Love between Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Cranfield, C. E. B. Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985.
Dynes, Wayne R. Review of Brooten. Journal of Homosexuality 36,2 (1998):114–20.
Käsemann, Ernst. Commentary on Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1980.
Murray, Stephen O. Homosexualities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
P.S. Arguments from “nature” derive from Greek rather than Hebrew conceptions, and what Paul meant by “nature” is less important than that his employment of the term was in a description of consequences, not in any suggestions for promulgating laws (even laws for a Christian regime).
originally posted on epinions 26 March 2002
©2002, 2016, Stephen O. Murray