A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 1:18-32. 3 (a). verses 21-24.
The opening statement that *they knew God* cannot be taken absolutely, since elsewhere Paul writes that people outside Christ do not know God (E.g. Gal. 4:8; 1 Thess. 4:5; 2 Thess. 1:8). It refers rather to the limited knowledge of God’s power and glory which is available to everybody through general revelation. (19-20).
Instead of their knowledge of God leading to the worship of God, they *neither glorify him as God nor gave thanks to him.* Rather *their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened* (21), and (despite their claim to wisdom) *they became fools* (22). Their futility, darkness and folly were seen in their idolatry, and in the absurd ‘exchange’ which their idolatry involved: *they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles* (23, cf. Ps.106:20; Je.2:11).
What Paul saw plainly, wrote C.H.Dodd, was that Greek philosophy ‘easily came to terms with the grossest forms of superstition and immorality. And so it did, just as it is a grave count against the lofty philosophy of Hinduism that it utters no effective protest against the most degrading practices of popular religion in India today.’ But the cultural idolatry of the West is no better. To exchange the worship of the living God for the modern obsession with wealth, fame and power is equally foolish and equally blameworthy.
God’s judgement on the people’s idolatry was to give them over *in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity*. The history of the world confirms that idolatry tends to immorality. A false image of God leads to a false understanding of sex. Paul does not tell us what kind of immorality he has in mind, except that it involved *the degrading of their bodies with one another* (24). He is right. Illicit sex degrades people’s humanness; sex in marriage, as God intended, ennobles it.
b). Verses 25-27.
Here another ‘exchange’ is mentioned, not the exchanging of the glory of God for images (23), but the exchanging of *the truth of God for a lie*, indeed ‘the’ lie, the ultimate lie. For this is what the falsehood of idolatry is, since it involves transforming our worship to *created things* from *the Creator*, whom Paul in a spontaneous doxology declares worthy of eternal adoration: *who is for ever praised* (25).
This time *God gave them over to shameful lusts*, which Paul specifies as lesbian practices (26) and male homosexual relationships (27). In both cases he describes the people concerned as guilty of a third ‘exchange’: the *women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones* (26), while *men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another* (27a). Twice he uses the adjective *physikos* (‘natural’) and once the expression *para physin* (‘against nature’ or ‘unnatural’). *Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion* (27b). Paul does not specify what this penalty is; only that it is received ‘in themselves’.
Verses 26-27 are a crucial text in the contemporary debate about homosexuality. The traditional interpretation, that they describe and condemn all homosexual behaviour, is being challenged by the gay lobby. Three arguments are advanced. First, it is claimed that the passage is irrelevant, on the ground that its purpose is neither to teach sexual ethics, nor to expose vice, but rather to portray the outworking of God’s wrath. This is true. But if a certain sexual conduct is to be seen as the consequence of God’s wrath, it must be displeasing to him. Secondly, ‘the likelihood is that Paul is thinking only about pederasty’ since ‘there was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world’, and that he opposing it because of the humiliation and exploitation experienced by the youths involved. All one can say in response to this suggestion is that the text itself contains no hint of it.
Thirdly, there is the question of what Paul meant by ‘nature’. Some homosexual people are urging that their relationships cannot be described as ‘unnatural’, since they are perfectly natural to them. John Boswell has written, for example, that ‘the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual people’. Hence Paul’s statement that they ‘abandoned’ natural relations, and ‘exchanged’ them for unnatural (26-27). Richard Hays has written a thorough exegetical rebuttal of this interpretation of Romans 1, however. He provides ample contemporary evidence that the opposition of ‘natural’ (*kata physin*) and ‘unnatural’ (*para physin*) was ‘very frequently used…as a way of distinguishing between heterosexual and homosexual behaviour’. Besides, differentiating between sexual orientation and sexual practice is a modern concept; ‘to suggest that Paul intends to condemn homosexual acts only when they are committed by persons who are constitutionally heterosexual is to introduce a distinction entirely foreign to Paul’s thought-world’, in fact a complete anachronism.
So then, we have no liberty to interpret the noun ‘nature’ as meaning ‘my’ nature, or the adjective ‘natural’ as meaning ‘what seems natural to me’. On the contrary, *physis* (‘natural’) means God’s created order. To act ‘against nature’ means to violate the order which God has established, whereas to act ‘according to nature’ means to behave ‘in accordance with the intention of the Creator’. Moreover, the intention of the Creator means his original intention. What this was Genesis tells us and Jesus confirmed: ‘At the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”. So they are no longer two but one.’ Then Jesus added his personal endorsement and deduction: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate’ (Mt. 19:4ff., quoting Gn. 2:24). In other words, God created humankind male and female; God instituted marriage as a heterosexual union; and what God has thus united, we have no liberty to separate. This threefold action of God established that the only context which he intends for the ‘one flesh’ experience is heterosexual monogamy, and that a homosexual partnership (however loving and committed it may claim to be) is ‘against nature’ and can never be regarded as a legitimate alternative to marriage.
Tomorrow: Romans 1:28-32.