Holy Love: Passages #4

Romans 1:18-32

There’s no doubt that this passage is the focal text for interpreting human sexuality in general and LGBTQ+ sexuality in particular.  Romans links in spirit and substance with Leviticus.  Just as Israel was entering a new land, so too Christians were moving into a new world.  In both contexts, separated by more than a thousand years and a thousand mikes, the people of God were moving into cultures and religions that viewed and practiced sexuality differently than God intended.  In both cases, it was important to address sexual immorality and affirm sexual righteousness in keeping with the principles of the Covenant which we have previously explored: sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and (with the coming of the New Covenant) monogamy.  This is why some scholars view this passage as a “Holiness Code” for Christian sexuality.

The passage also provides the larger context for the sexual addiction (malakoi) and sexual abuse (arsenokoitai) which Paul specifically named in the two passages we explored in the last post.  Romans provides the “why” factor to any of the “whats” regarding human sexuality.  Consequently, it is the pivotal passage.  And like the other passages, there is a key in the text itself which opens the door to interpreting it: the “downward spiral” that Paul describes as the passage unfolds.  We can trace it through the following words and ideas.

First, multiple concerns.  One of the immediate mistakes in interpreting this passage is the rush to make sexuality the emphasis.  The same mistake is made with respect to the Holiness Code. Paul’s and Moses’ concerns included many things.  Paul mentions twenty two concerns in this passage.  We must begin here, or we will never interpret Paul’s words correctly.  There are things that Paul is equally concerned about.  Read the list in verses 29-31, and be prepared to be surprised by what’s on it.  Also, ponder why there is comparative silence about 21 sins and so much “noise” about one.

Second, idolatry (v  21-23).  This is the single source from which all the sins mentioned by Paul emerge.  He begins exactly where Moses began, setting sexual sin in the context of Covenant violation, and specifically the violation of the first commandment (Exodus 20:3).  In Canaan, Greece, and Rome sex was idolatrous because it was egoic, glorifying the fallen self rather than God.  This takes sexuality out of its original context (the imago dei), turning God-given sexuality into self-serving gratification—a complete perversion of covenant love. Paul sums it up as sex that “ worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator” (1:25), sex that does not “ acknowledge God” (1:28)—that is, sex which is not sacred.

Third, lust (v 24). Here is the one-word summary for fallen-world sexuality, whether in Canaan, Rome, or our country.  It is the sexual manifestation of idolatry—what the Bible describes in two key words: fornication and adultery.  Lustful sexuality is inordinately passionate and promiscuous.  It includes the two kinds (malakoi and arsenokoitai) that we have already explored—and more.

Interestingly, John Wesley used the phrase ”lustful idolatry” to summarize this passage. [1] He rightly saw the comprehensiveness of the sinfulness Paul was pointing to, emphasizing in his notes the multi-faceted ways in which we abandon the ways of God and embrace thevways of egotism/ethnocentrism.

Fourth, the downward spiral continues with promiscuity (v 24-27).  We see this in two ways: Paul’s use of plural words and more especially in his use of the words “ traded in” (CEB) or “exchanged” (NRSV).  The Greek word means “temporarily set aside” their orientation for another one.  This is the pivot for the kind of sexuality Paul is describing.  Get ready.

He is describing heterosexual persons, not homosexuals!  The sinners here are heterosexuals who behave as if they were homosexuals. Simply put. Paul is not writing about LGBTQ+ people, but about heterosexual persons who sin by acting contrary to their orientation.  And this leads immediately to the next stage in the downward spiral.

Fifth, this sexuality is unnatural (v 26-27).  Scholars are generally agreed that the word “unnatural” as used here by Paul is not a physical term, but a philosophical one taken from Stoicism.  For the Stoics, “natural” sexual behavior was respectful, relational, personal, and affectionate. [2]  The kind of heterosexual sin described by Paul as “unnatural” was (as the larger context shows) exploitive, transactional, objectified, and loveless.  The connection of Paul’s thought with Stoicism comes through his use of the word ‘foolish’ twice (v 21 and 22), the very word that Stoicism used to describe “unnatural” sexuality.  

It is worth noting in this point that Paul is being a good evangelist in this passage.  He used something the Romans who read his letter would understand, Stoic thought about sexuality.  He did not appeal to the Law (as Mosrs did in Leviticus) because the Romans would either not have known it or would have ignored in their culture.  Without ever saying it outright, Paul was saying, “Heterosexual sin is denounced in your own culture by the Stoics.”  In other words, heterosexual sin (behaving as if they were homosexual) is wrong, and the Romans’ own accepted philosophy said so.

The Romans passage is complex, and to fully understand it requires a depth of historical, cultural, and religious knowledge beyond what I have written about here.  But the gist is this: the passage is not about LGBTQ+ people or their sexual behavior.  It is about heterosexuals behaving contrary to their orientation because they idolatrously and lustfully prefer self-gratification over God-glorification.

In short, sexual sin as Paul describes it here is sexual behavior contrary to one’s orientation.  So, when. LGBTQ+ people express their sexuality in congruence with their orientation and with covenant love (sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy), their sexuality is holy. [3]

And so…

(1) Assuming this interpretation of Romans 1 is new to you, rather than posing a question, I simply ask you to reflect further upon this post.   It took me a while to “see into” the passage.  Be willing to do so.

(2) Consider reading one of the books in the “Scripture” section of the ‘For Further Reading’ list at the back of ‘Holy Love.’  Jennifer Knust’s book is a good overview.


[1] John Wesley, ‘Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament’ (1755), comment about the passage as-a-whole. He makes no comment about homosexuality.

[2] Arius Didymus’ work, ‘Epitome of Stoic Ethics’ goes into detail about these qualities of wise sexuality.

[3] After I wrote ‘Holy Love,’ I found five additional books that are noteworthy for understanding the Romans passage in its historical/cultural context: (1) Marilyn Skinner, ‘Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture’ 2nd edition, (2) David Garrison, ‘Sexual Culture in Ancient Greece,(3) Judith Hallett, Roman Sexualities, (4) K.J. Dover, ‘Greek Sexuality,’ and (5) Craig Williams, ‘Roman Sexuality.’


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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