What are “Dishonorable Passions” in Romans 1:26-27?

One of the most controversial elements of Paul’s description of sin is his statement that “God gave them over to dishonorable passions” (1:26-27). These dishonorable passions are sexual relations which are “contrary to nature.”  “Relations” (χρῆσις) is a rare word, used only here in the New Testament but regularly used for sexual relations in non-biblical literature. The consensus view is that Romans 1:26-27 refers to homosexuality. Fitzmyer, for example, says to deny Paul means homosexuality here is to deny the plain meaning of the text (Fitzmyer, Romans, 286).

gay-flagSince this text is extremely controversial in contemporary western culture, many have sought to find a way to explain Paul’s statement without equating homosexuality and idolatry. There are several options for understanding what Paul means by “giving up natural relations.” Some argue Paul has in mind heterosexuals who have homosexual relations (John Boswell, 109). Homosexual sexual activity is therefore the natural thing for a homosexual to do and not sinful. Others have argued Paul is condemning pederasty, adult males who sexual exploit boys (See Miller). However, Paul does not use different nouns, he says “men and men” not “men and boys.”

But it is critically important to read this text in Paul’s context, now ours. This includes both Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world. Homosexuality is routinely condemned in both the Old Testament (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Deut 23:17). Leviticus 18:22 calls homosexual practices an abomination (תּוֹעֵבָה), “abominable actions which are considered to transgress the basic commandments” (HALOT). Tikva Frymer-Kensky lists both homosexuality and bestiality as sexual sins of “commingling,” and improper mixing. God designed things to “go together,” and if things intended to be separate are put together, it is “not right.” Certain mixed breeding of animals are forbidden, not because “God hates mules,” but because the result is a sterile animal.

gay-protestSecond Temple period Jewish views on homosexuality were equally clear (For additional Jewish examples, see Dunn, Romans 1-8, 65-66). Test.Naphtali 3:3-5 cite Sodom as an example of people who have “departed from the natural order,” as did the Watchers, the angels who left heaven to have sex with the daughters of men (1 Enoch 6-36).

Testament of Naphtali, 3:3-5 The gentiles, because they wandered astray and forsook the Lord, have changed the order, and have devoted themselves to stones and sticks, patterning themselves after wandering spirits. 4 But you, my children, shall not be like that: In the firmament, in the earth, and in the sea, in all the products of his workmanship discern the Lord who made all things, so that you do not become like Sodom, which departed from the order of nature. 5 Likewise the Watchers departed from nature’s order; the Lord pronounced a curse on them at the Flood. On their account he ordered that the earth be without dweller or produce.

Wisdom 14:26 includes “a change of nature (γενέσεως ἐναλλαγή, NRSV “sexual perversion,” see the vice list cited below). The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo refers to homosexuality in his description of Sodom as “a country full of innumerable iniquities, and especially of gluttony and debauchery, and all the great and numerous pleasures” (Abr. 135-136).

Philo, On Abraham (135) As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire; (136) and so, by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they made also their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of man, as far as depended on them. At all events, if the Greeks and barbarians were to have agreed together, and to have adopted the commerce of the citizens of this city, their cities one after another would have become desolate, as if they had been emptied by a pestilence.”

The Greco-Roman world in the first century was open to homosexual sex, although long-term homosexual relations were not accepted as normative. Jewett refers to Rome as “a culture marked by aggressive bisexuality” (Romans, 180-1). Plato, Laws, 636a-b: “The gymnasia and common meals corrupt the pleasures of love which are natural not to man only but also natural to beasts” and 636c: “Pleasure in mating is due to nature (kata physin) when male unites with female, but contrary to nature (para physin) when male unites with male (arrenōn) or female with female (thēleiōn)” (Cited by Kruse, Romans, 101, note 67). Seneca condemned homosexual exploitation (Ep. 47.7–8), referring to abuse of slaves. Plutarch regarded homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” (The Dialogue on Love 751c-e; 752b-c).

Within Paul’s Jewish world, homosexuality was a practice that was associated with uncontrolled lust and living outside of the natural design of creation.

But this is not exactly what contemporary culture might say about homosexuality. How do we take Paul’s clear language in Romans 1 and use it in contemporary discussions on sexuality? It does not seem appropriate to ignore Paul or only accept the parts we agree with already, but it is also problematic if we let contemporary definitions of sexuality change our understanding of the Gospel.

 

 

Bibliography: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Sex and Sexuality,” in ABD 5: 1145; James E. Miller, “Pederasty and Romans 1:27: A Response to Mark Smith,” JAAR 65 (1997): 861-865.

11 thoughts on “What are “Dishonorable Passions” in Romans 1:26-27?

  1. It seems very clear to me that Paul is referring to homosexuality, just simply by looking at the passage. The bigger question then becomes, is homosexuality itself unnatural? Or is he just talking about relationships that are unnatural? What if someone says that they associate with the opposite gender than what they were born with and it would therefore be unnatural for them to have a heterosexual relationship? But Paul says they practiced “unnatural relations”, so it seems that whatever they were doing went against nature and how they were naturally designed by God. The definitions of sexuality and marriage have changed tremendously over the years, and culture has made them very ambiguous. It is hard to define those terms nowadays. The Bible however defines them for us very clearly (Gen. 1:27, Eph. 5:25-27, Deut. 22:5, 1 Cor. 7:1-8, Matt. 19:4-6).

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    • It is important to note that Paul states that women with women and men with men were having unnatural relationships with each other. This means a homosexual relationship is not natural at all period. Yes, God created us as sexual beings, but using it in the wrong context can lead to pain and hurt because it in now used how God intended it to be.

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  2. People in the first century Mediterranean world did not classify themselves as heterosexual or homosexual. It was an ambi-sexual culture. James Neill helpfully writes,

    “I was not prepared to find that exclusive homosexuality accounted for a only small proportion of the varieties of homosexual customs and traditions reported by anthropologists and historians, and that in a great number of societies homosexuality was practiced by nearly all the males and females most of whom would move on to heterosexual marriage or were already married.”

    This is important because it means that Paul was not referring to what we would call a Gay minority. Whether we go as far as Boswell, this does need to be taken into account.

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  3. I believe Paul is talking about homosexuality, because he states they “exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (Romans 1:26). It is clear that the nature of God is being ignored and the flesh is taking over. It is important to remind people the blessing through a marriage relationship where sex is right to do. This relationship is good for your physical, emotional, and spiritual well being. If we as humans desire to live life to the full, we need to realize God designed us and knows the best way for us. This is why he created sexual relationships to be between a married man and woman (Matthew 19:4-6, NIV). By resisting the ways of the world, God is saving us from spiritual disturbances, STDs, and emotional distress if we choose to participation in homosexual relationships (Hebrews 13:4).

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  4. Homosexuality and all other forms of sexual sins are completely against God and cannot be justified by any means what so ever. Our society would disagree. There have been so many excuses and “justifications” for the sinful things humans do. When Paul says that they practiced “unnatural relations” he is clearly stating that their actions are against how God has created sexual relations to be. It is shocking to me when I hear the amount of excuses and explanations that people come up with to try to justify what they are doing with their sexuality. Even if an individual is not a Christian, does not believe in God and has no knowledge of the Bible, he or she still knows what is “right” and “wrong.” We all have by nature a sense of what is normal and natural verses what is unnatural. Hebrews 13:4 clearly states the importance of marriage and purity. Men are to be with women and women with men, no other “normal” relationship exists. Sex was and is created by God for a marriage relationship, not to be done when and with whomever one pleases.

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  5. I agree with what dnbazan13 says. They make a good point about the true meaning of relationships are made for, to “grow our physical, emotional, and spiritual being.” I would also add that if we are in a relationship that is healthy that is when we see the benefits of those three things being met. I find it interesting that many people just want to jump into relationships just for the title of being in a relationship. I think this is why a lot of people are entering in a homosexual relationship because they want to fit in with the people around them, and or want to be like the celebrities who are coming out as being homosexual. I believe what the Bible says about homosexual relations are unnatural, I believe that God created a man to be with a women. I agree with what autumnbefus is saying that there are too many people who are in homosexual relationships and are trying to justify them. People want to blame God that he made their brain a certain way, and He made them this way, but what they are not saying is I am choosing to act this way. They just want to blame God for making them this, and not want to take responsibility for their choices. I believe God can forgive any sin in this entire world, but it is the job as a sinner to repent, and ask God for the forgiveness.

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  6. To approach people nowadays with our Christian perspective on homosexuality, especially in regards to how strongly worded Paul was about it, there is a need to do so, but with some caution as to how we go about discussing homosexuality. From a Christian worldview, it is believed that God made us to join with members of the opposite sex, and intended that union to be made with only one other person, after marriage. Society today has become so immersed in the idea that we should have the freedom to do as we please, to follow our feelings and impulses, as long as they are not going to seriously harm another person. The plea for equality is also a big factor, and many now believe that homosexuality and heterosexuality are determined biologically, not by choice. It is important that we explain to others that God would have given an indication that it is acceptable to commit sexual acts with the same gender, if it were not against nature and His will. Seeing as how we are made in the image of God, and that a reborn Christian would be compelled to start, or continue portraying, a nature that mimics God’s own nature. God made the human body to fit with the other gender’s body perfectly. As mentioned in others’ blog responses, carrying out sexual actions in the way God intended, leads to better outcomes on different aspects of one’s life. Physically carrying out sexual actions that God did not intend, causes many people to get STDs, among other personal complications. Emotionally, people may be connecting on an emotional level together within a homosexual relationship, but it won’t be as healthy or flourishing as it would have been if they were in a heterosexual relationship. Spiritually, God said that Christ and the church are like a groom and his bride, so the original marriage plan, original relationship ideal that God had for us, is then most healthy for us spiritually as well. If we are able to make excuses in this area, and live in a way that obviously does not mesh with God’s will for human beings, then we are willingly living in an unwholesome manner. I take what Paul said in Romans 1:26-27 to be referring to homosexuality itself as unnatural, because other spots in Scripture support that mindset opinion, and if one is taking that literally, then it shows that anyone committing an act that is sexually unnatural is not living according to the Lord’s will. Paul was expressing displeasure about this situation, so I therefore think it is important we explain and then express that displeasure as well.

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  7. Perhaps we would do well to address the issue of heterosexuals and their promiscuous behavior in the church before we make a major issue of homosexuality. Heterosexuals are in and out of relationships at an alarmingly high rate, even within the evangelical church. By and large the divorce and “re-marriage” (if there is such a thing) reflects the same divorce rate as the secular world. Jesus said more about divorce than he ever did about homosexuality and yet the church seems content to turn a blind eye to those who are divorced, allowing them to take on roles of leadership and high profile positions.

    “Divorce is an unspoken epidemic among believers. A recent report by the Barna Research Group revealed that born-again Christians are more likely to go through a marital split than non-Christians. According to the nationwide study, released in December 1999, 27 percent of those identified as born-again Christians have experienced at least one divorce. Among those who are not born again, only 24 percent are currently divorced or have been at least once.

    A related study also conducted by Barna Research found that among Protestant senior pastors, 15 percent have experienced divorce.” http://www.charismamag.com/

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  8. As many have stated it is fairly clear that Paul is referring to the passage of Romans 1:26-27 is the homosexuality relations. Many have questioned whether this means that those who claim to be homosexual are “born” gay? That is the heated topic and source of support our culture is asking. Our society counters any other argument of anti-homosexual relations with the belief that people are indeed born gay. They believe that biologically they hold some sort of DNA gene or chemical imbalance that makes them lust after the same sex. In regards to how Paul uses the term “natural” is the key focus. For me I believe that homosexual relations are contrary to nature because we were created in a right relationship between male and female (Genesis ). I believe, however, that through the sin of Adam and Eve that some people could be more likely to lust after the same-sex. It is possible. However, we can no longer use this whole concept of “I was born this way” as an excuse or justification to live this way. We all are tempted with different sins that are stronger for us than others, however, we are called to live a life in Christ and not for ourselves (Luke 9:23). We are called to not live by the flesh but by the spirit and to live as new creations. We no longer choose to sin. That’s what it comes down too; a choice. Whether one has the biological makeup of attractiveness to the same sex, they choose to act on it or not, and that’s where the problem lies.

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